Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die,
we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret life of Bees
British prisoner of war Denis Avey tells an incredible story of survival in The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz. Although the title gives away the thrust of the narrative, there is far more to his tale than spending a harrowing few nights in Buna-Monowitz, or Auschwitz III. On the outskirts of the camp, he works alongside a young German Jew, Ernie. It would give too much away to discuss the book further, but it has one resounding theme – storytelling as a way to revive passed lives.
Legends, myths, and even fairy tales, have all been used to keep certain figures alive through the centuries. The reasons for this are anything from preserving the lessons they brought to civilisations to honouring their much-revered existence. But if there is a single universal question humans struggle with, it is what happens after death. We can speculate about spirits, dark tunnels, bright lights, and heavens, but it is only faith that can bring us any sort of certainty about life after death – a term which is rather contradictory in itself.
In the absence of faith and certainty – whether sporadic or persistent – there is a terror or acceptance of the concept of no ‘after death’. This is the belief that all living creatures cease to exist when the heart stops beating and the brain stops thinking. It evokes that philosophical conundrum: ‘if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it still make a sound?’ In other words, if an individual, and all stories surrounding their life, disappears, did they ever really exist in the first place? As Avey describes numerous times in his book, sharing stories about the deceased “bears witness” to their existence. Stories are fundamental to retaining lives, and perhaps lives only really exist through stories.
But as time peters out and memories fade, fewer stories about the individual are shared. People are not generally remembered or discussed a century or two after their death. In fact, it takes a lot less time for most. So where are they now, and were they ever real? Luc Besson’s Lucy received mixed reviews, and may have been a fairly shallow attempt at examining the mystery of life, but it makes a noteworthy point nonetheless.
Lucy uses a video of a car driving along a rural road to demonstrate the role time plays in validating our existence. When time unravels at a rapid speed the car moves so fast that it becomes invisible. And if it is no longer visible, it is reasonable to question its existence. Thus, Lucy concludes that without time, humans do not exist. It is the pace of life that verifies our existence. Time, as a human construct, has been designed to “bear witness” to our actuality.
The mind boggles at the grandeur of life and all that science, philosophy and religion, fail to resolve. No discourse can quantify the point of being or life beyond this world. So we have stories – and time – to assert ourselves and the memories of our loved ones; two human constructs that we take for granted. We may never access our full potential or uncover the meaning of life, but we should remember the significance of stories and why we must always take the time to share our memories. To bear witness to those who touched our lives.