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April 10th, 2017

LJ Idol: Campfire Stories

Anthropologists don't know exactly when we did it, but it seems that one of the earliest things that our human ancestors did was master fire. Indeed, the ability to control fire seems to be one of the things that makes us human in many ways -- it allows us to cook and thus transformed our diet, it served as a source of warmth and protection and thus very likely increased our lifespan, and it provides a setting for community building and thus helped us leverage our social natures in new and interesting ways. It seems reasonable to suppose that not long after we figured out how to make fire, humans began telling campfire stories.

Some of those stories were surely cautionary, others epic, and still others humorous. The stories we tell when we're with our circle, keeping out the darkness. The stories we tell about what's Out There, and Who We Are, and What Is True. As well as the stories we tell about what happens to those who go beyond the protective circle of light and heat, beyond the tight embrace of the familiar, who dare to venture into the darkness with its peril and evils and hazards.

Human beings seem to have a penchant for making myth, for making story, for making symbols -- Leslie White thought that the ability to make and understand symbols was itself the mark of humanity -- and at some point those early campfire stories about very real dangers must have started to mutate and transform into the campfire stories we know today. Stories of wendigo and werewolves, of Bigfoot and the hook-handed serial killer, of the Mothman and the Weeping Woman in White. I'm agnostic on whether or not these stories have kernels of truth -- there is more the wide world than I will ever be able to prove or disprove, after all. I'm more interested in why we continue to tell these stories to ourselves and one another. I'm fascinated by the power these stories have over the imaginations of even the most self-professed rational person. Because these stories of what lurks in the dark tell us about the consequences of straying from the familiar, of leaving behind the safe, of forging ahead into uncharted territory. These stories give form to our greatest fears -- of death, sure, but also of isolation, of loss of control, of not knowing all there is to know about our world. Campfire stories tap into the most primal part of our minds and hearts, and all the complex emotions that live there.

What we fear most, I've come to believe, is the unknown. And it is in the darkness beyond our familiar fire circles that we encounter the unknown in its purest form. When we hear noises from just outside the protective glow, it is in our nature to huddle together for safety, to trust the flames to keep the predator at bay, to believe in the power of community and family to keep us safe from whatever might be Out There.

And yet.

And yet there is always the person who, hearing the footsteps or the growling or the rustling get closer, chooses to stand, to light a branch or a torch. There is always the person who steps to the edge of the circle, attempting to illuminate the threatening darkness. There is always the one who declares that the campfire story is, after all, just a story, and that crouching in fear only postpones the inevitable.

There is always the one who seeks to throw light on the creeping danger, to prove it to be not a wolf or an enemy or a monster, but instead another person seeking shelter, the wind playing in the branches, a small rodent rustling through the leaves. And if the light should instead reveal something more sinister, more dangerous, then that torch bearer is ready to fight, not to sit and wait for their doom and destruction.

We believe campfire stories, and we tell campfire stories, because they assure us that there are ways to stay safe. They give us a sense of what might lurk out there in the chaos. And even if those things are terrifying, these stories give us a way to survive them -- and warn us of the consequences of straying too far from the campfire.

But the ones who stride confidently to the edge of the circle? Or who do it even through their knees shake?

Those are the heroes.

Those are the ones that tell us that safety bought with fear is no safety at all, but its own kind of prison.

Those are the ones that show us that monsters live in the dark, sure, but when we throw light in their path, they dissolve like smoke, like mist.

They are the ones who show us that we can face our fear head on and exand our worlds beyond the tiny hearths at which we were raised and reared.

Which is an entirely different -- and if you ask me, better -- type of story.



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