Not By Bread Alone
Though no one wants to go to bed on an empty stomach, how many of us would find our days fulfilling if we merely woke up, ate three meals, and then returned to sleep? A force stronger than hunger works in each of us: motivating, intriguing, and sometimes even gnawing at our innermost being to continue our search for significance and affirmation of our dignity and purpose. Regardless of our social status or age, this longing is part of being human.
Unlike machines, we devote time to "unproductive tasks" like talking about our feelings, recounting our experiences, playing competitive games, watching entertainment, and engaging our minds in seemingly frivolous exercises of imagination and make believe. Oftentimes it is storytelling and the creation of fictional worlds which become our avenues for seeking out this meaning beyond our basic human needs. Think about the itch to hear a bedtime story as a child, or to keep the TV going onto the next bingeworthy episode.
Nowadays we walk around with an endless "snack bar" of facts and opinions in our pocket, constantly beckoning to our fingers and eyes to feast on its steady stream of information. But our preoccupation with what we sometimes call "distractions" speaks to a deeper phenomenon. Our smart phones, streaming service shows, podcast channels and social media feeds are a sign of the connected and flourishing life for which we long. We crave "playgrounds" in which to wrestle with what it means to have purpose in this world. We need another "word" to chew on, to sustain our imagination, to help us picture how our lives could be.
Sure, we can twist our thirst for entertainment into voyeurism and consumerism, but the fact we find ourselves in these traps is possibly a hint of something substantial beyond a few square meals and a roof over our heads. Perhaps if we were more aware of our constant returning to storytelling, it could become a more organic pastime we steward and cultivate, directing us toward deeper connection with others, more social equity, and a fruitful harvest of our creativity.
Theologians Miroslav Volf and Michael Croasmun wrote in their book For the Life of the World:
"Some dismiss exploration of the good life as a luxury, a matter of 'extra credit' we can take up if so inclined after the necessities of life—food shelter, and safety—have been secured . . . It is a mistake, however, to suppose that the satisfaction of basic needs can be separated from the meaning and goodness of life . . . An eight-year-old girl getting up before dawn to take the one family cow to pasture before going to school can ask it no less than can a respected scientist working in an industry . . . A compelling vision of flourishing life is not a luxury, a cozy reading room for a middle-class home that already has a kitchen, bathroom, living space, and bedrooms. It is a basic need for a being who does not and cannot live by bread alone."