Every story — from King Lear to Robinson Crusoe to Little House on the Prairie — conveys messages, whether or not they are intended. Each story discloses something about the storyteller’s worldview and, if it’s effective, sways the audience, partially or temporarily bringing us around to a new point of view.
Entertainment gives us vicarious adventures inside a hero’s skin. It can be fun, while also deepening our hearts and souls — though that is certainly not inevitable, for much fiction just wastes our time. Or worse: it can make us suffer vicariously and adopt foolish opinions. It can shock and appall us. It can teach us how to cheat other people. It can even persuade us to accept wretched conditions instead of seizing splendid opportunities that lie within our grasp.
Entertainment puts us through vicarious suffering that is consequential. When you imagine the pain of another person, you truly experience it — at least in an attenuated form, and perhaps vividly. Do you really want to feel another person’s pain? It can actually hurt, producing the same biochemicals in your body as if your own flesh were wounded. Stressful emotions are bad for your health, while laughter, joy, love, and sexual pleasure are good for you, measurably extending your life expectancy.
But you sometimes choose entertainment that is stressful rather than pleasurable. Suspense, creepy ghost stories, scenes of autopsies, car wrecks, and torture, for example. Why do you pay to be put through such anguish? Philosophers have speculated extensively about that question, without arriving at any single obvious explanation, for our motivations are multiple and contradictory. Painful stories do hurt, but sometimes they also make us wiser and more compassionate toward people whom we might otherwise disdain.
Occasionally we may even feel love for a character whose shortcomings are obvious. These moments of tenderness may enrich our own emotional and social capacities in lasting ways. Such experiences are “educational“ — and indeed, more than that. Besides cognitively expanding our horizons, whenever we feel love for a fictive character, our soul is deepened. There are health benefits and spiritual, psychological benefits as well, for our hearts are opened to lives beyond our own.
Remarkably, an imaginary character or event may touch us more profoundly than anyone in our own “real“ lives, occasionally even making us question our previous motivations, so that we adopt new commitments that last a whole lifetime. That phenomenon proves the power of stories. This artistry is under-used. I want us all to cultivate and employ it for the benefit of humankind.