“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”—Ecclesiastes 1:9
There’s something appropriate to the fact that Solomon’s words are about 3000 years old, and while he may not have given humanity enough credit in terms of technology, he certainly was right about our behavior. There are two places I think this is relevant, with radically-different levels of importance.
The first and more important is that, as I’ve heard a number of pastors say, there is nothing we can do that God hasn’t seen before. Our shortcomings and sins are neither novel nor noteworthy, and neither is our cycle of struggle, failure, trying again, backsliding, progress, temporary success, and genuine forward progress. The story of the Bible is the story of humanity failing, screwing things up, pleading for forgiveness, getting it, doing better, and then sliding back into old habits and the cycle beginning anew. There is nothing we can do to shock God. There is no wrongdoing we can commit that will set us apart as one of the “special bad ones.” His forgiveness extends to all equally.
The second is that because of this pattern, human nature has been more-or-less constant for all of our history. We do good, we do evil. Cycles of freedom and oppression wax and wane, and one can find parallels with present events in history, sometimes very recent history. I’m sure everyone with an internet connection has seen some quote that, on the face of it, appears to be about current events that was actually from the 1960s. Or 1860s. Or 1360s. Humanity is nothing if not consistent, which is why, in my opinion, the stories we tell each other are so important.
It’s also why they tend to be so similar.
There are archetypal stories out there (how many is the subject of much discussion and debate) but the names are familiar: the Hero’s Journey, Boy Meets Girl, Monster in the House, and so forth. Each one comes with its own set of tropes and conventions. So many of us strive to come up with something original, when the truth is: we can’t. There is at least one website devoted to cataloging tropes, and it is massive. In a way, that knowledge is freeing, if you let it be. Because there is still room to combine the elements in a new way, even if the elements themselves are familiar. And in so doing, we can create something more useful than something new: we can create something meaningful, and meaningful in such a way that it can be understood.
Meaningful doesn’t always have to mean “deep” by the way; not every story we tell is going to contain some timeless, profound truth. However, if we let them, almost every story we tell, or that we let others tell us, will reveal some small tings about us. Telling stories together builds friendships, but it does so by showing others parts of us that we can’t or won’t show in other ways. Tabletop RPGs can do this better than most other means, if we let them. The collaborative nature of the experience means that the participants should be constantly playing off of each other – you can tell a lot about someone by the types of characters they create, and how those characters behave in-game. The experience teaches both us and our friends our own specific rhythms and patterns of thought while teaching us theirs in return. Oftentimes, all that’s useful for is making the session more enjoyable, but in today’s world of stress and disconnection, that’s still a worthy goal. Every now and then, though, sometimes unintentionally, the experience will teach us something profound about ourselves, deeper than we expected, but you have to keep scratching the surface to get down there.
We often get into the good stuff, the deep stuff, the really useful and meaningful revelations not by digging a mine shaft straight down, but by digging a continuous series of shallow holes, one inside the other.