Trial by Fire

Luc Viator / Wikimedia Commons

Luc Viator / Wikimedia Commons

When the doctors can’t tell whether you’ve broken your ankle or just sprained it, you know it’s bad. Of course, I didn’t need anyone to tell me. My ankle hurt like it’d never hurt before, and was swollen like a massive goose-egg. The doctors put it in a Velcro-up cast, in case the ankle was broken. So began a month and a half of sitting around, sometimes watching the neighbors’ apple tree bud, blossom, and the petals fall away. Waiting for the pain to subside and the body to perform its miracle of healing.

I’ve had more than one bad sprain. It’s not fun. And I’ve done everything I can do to make sure the healing goes quickly. Now, I know how to treat a sprain with RICE- rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Very important. Timely treatment can take weeks off the recovery period.

Now imagine how I felt when a friend of mine told me that she had sprained her ankle while running in a softball game, and didn’t bother to quit then. No, she had to keep playing. She complained to me how the ankle started feeling weird during the game (not just painful, weird), and she said to me:

“Oh well. Whatever doesn’t kill me will make me stronger.”

I hate that phrase. I know there’s a moral in it somewhere, but on the surface it’s just plain wrong. It’s especially wrong when applied to physical injury.

The doctors told my friend that her ankle may never heal.

Perhaps, the phrase wasn’t meant for physical injury. Perhaps it was meant for emotionally painful experiences instead. Perhaps it was intended to show us that, even though we’re going through a rough time, we’ll emerge as a better person. Like metal, refined by fire.

Remember Bowler Hat Guy from Meet the Robinsons? He fell asleep in the middle of a baseball game, missed the critical catch, and was mobbed by his teammates. Did that rough experience make him a better person? No. He reacted with bitterness and resentment, and he carried those traits with him into the future.

That’s not the whole story, but I’m not here to tell you about Meet the Robinsons. Go watch the movie. I’m here to show that a bad experience, a trial by fire, will not necessarily make you stronger, or a character stronger. The fire may eat you up if you let it. And that’s the point—usually, there’s a choice. In storytelling, the antagonist usually gives in to the dark side and lets negative feelings envelope him. The protagonist often fights the fire, and emerges stronger, or at least recovers. And then there are all sorts of complicated in-betweens that happen in real live people.

Trial by fire is a key aspect of storytelling. The teller forces characters into unbearably hard places, so that their true nature may be revealed. Villain, or hero? Or something shadier and in-between? The fire reveals. And what doesn’t kill must leave its scars for the element to be significant.

The ligaments in my ankle have been permanently weakened and scarred by recurring sprains. My determined friend will be much more affected by her one injury, because of her choice to push onward. In storytelling, just like in real life, choice and consequence follow fiery trials, and strength is rarely a consequence. Even so, the admirable character does what he must, and moves on.


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