We Didn't Start The Fire

I love the Billy Joel song, We Didn’t Start the Fire. Especially when paired with images of what he’s singing about. (Here’s one great YouTube version)

It’s amazing to look at and think about how the world changed in 40 short years from 1949 – 1989. And if you look at it, in 20 short years, we’ve almost changed more since ‘89.

But what strikes me most when watching history develop is really how disconnected it all feels at times. Stuff happens, then other stuff happens, then more stuff happens, and decades later historians try to put all that stuff together and they come up with a narrative. A story for why all that stuff happened, the way it happened, and the order it happened.

The amazing thing is, this will happen again in 20 or 40 years. Way down the line in 2050 or 2060, historians will piece together what was happening in 2000s, and the 2010s, and the 2020s and come up with a narrative. An explanation for why things happened the way they did. A story.

We are just characters in that story. Most of us are just extras in that big story. Our contributions, and our triumphs and failures will largely go unnoticed in the final publication. But we are still a part of the story. We still get to shape how it is formed and what the end of it looks like.

The thing is, I don’t think any of us have thought of it like that before. We are all a part of a story, but it doesn’t feel like a story to us. It feels like a series of discontinuous and disconnected events that happen largely randomly.

The story is transparent to the characters in the story. Romeo and Juliet don’t know they are in a story. Gregor didn’t know he was in a book, and that the book was called The Metamorphosis. Peter and Lucy and Edmund and Susan don’t know they are in a story.

And at the end of that story, it is you, the reader, that gets to judge it. You get to decide if we like the outcome. How clever was the plot development? You get to decide which characters were the good guys, and which ones were the bad ones. You get to judge which ones were clever, and which ones were as dumb as rocks. Your judgment probably wouldn’t align with the character’s judgment, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the reader’s opinion that counts, not the character’s.

Yet you had nothing to do with the story. You didn’t participate in it. You didn’t even write it. You just sat on your butt and read it.

I am convinced this will be the way it is when all is said and done for all of us. Our character, our role in this story, will one day be judged. The judge will decide if you were the protagonist or the antagonist. He gets to decide if you did well or badly. He gets to judge.

If my story is going to one day be decided by a judge, I want to know what that judge is thinking and what criteria he’s going to be using. I want to have the best story I can.

The characters in the book don’t get to jump off the page and get the reader’s input. But we do. We get to ask the reader, the one who’s going to be judging the story at the end anyway, what he thinks we should do with our story. He’s read billions of them. He knows the ones that are really good, and he knows the ones that went terribly bad. He can tell us which things lead to destruction and ruin, and which things lead to satisfaction and joy.

But, he’s ultimately the reader. He will participate in your story, if you ask, but he will not write it.

It is, after all, your story to write. Write well.