from The Hobbit, or There and Back Again
written and illustrated by J.R.R Tolkien
George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1937
The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house
All that cold, cold, wet day.
from The Cat in the Hat
written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss
Random House, 1957
On Thursday, when Imogene woke up, she found she had grown antlers.
from Imogene’s Antlers
written and illustrated by David Small
Crown Publishers/Dragonfly Books/Random House, 1985
In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf.
from The Very Hungry Caterpillar
written and illustrated by Eric Carle
Philomel Books/Penguin, 1987
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
written by J. K. Rowling
illustrated by Mary GrandPré
Scholastic Inc./Arthur A. Levine Books, 1997
First, let me get something straight: this is a journal, not a diary.
from Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Greg Heffley's Journal
written and illustrated by Jeff Kinney
Amulet Books, 2007
It’s another list. This time some of my favorite opening lines.
I chose these because they all lead their readers to ask, “Then what?” We need to continue reading to find out. The characters, just like us, move around in their environments, talk to people in their made-up or real worlds, learn facts and philosophy, and make decisions.
In all my examples, except The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the main character, like all of us, is not really starting fresh. We turn the calendar to a new week or month or year but the things that happen today still depend on what we did or didn’t do before. Yesterday still exists, if only as a memory.
Fresh starts and do-overs imply something new. But knowing how important it is to draw on our memories, maybe it’s not even possible to start fresh, to start over on a clean slate. Maybe we don’t even want to. Maybe the tabula rosa theory only applies to infants (and caterpillars).
John Locke argued in his 1689 “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” that people are born without knowledge of the world. As we grow up, we learn through our senses and our experiences, but even he acknowledges these are fallible.
According to Locke, our minds cannot create new ideas. We can only combine ideas through experiences to come up with different ways of thinking. These different ways of thinking can draw on ideas that are complex and unique, but all ideas are learned through our senses and our experiences.
Jack Maden, in an article for the on-line journal PhilosophyBreak, suggests we try out Locke’s philosophy. Try to think of a new color, or sound, or taste. Locke says it’s impossible. Ideas are based on our experiences. Our creativity comes from combining those ideas in unique ways. Some genius at the Coca-Cola company 50 years ago thought of mixing lemon and lime in one drink. We can imagine how it tastes because we have experienced lemon and lime. Sprite is sold in over 190 countries and is the third best-selling soft drink brand worldwide.
And Dr. Seuss gave us a Cat in a Hat.
When he posited that we learn from our experiences, Locke was creating the definition for empiricism: knowledge comes from experience. We learn what is real by analyzing our experiences. Nothing should called true or real unless it can be ratified by our experience.
This seems like common sense now, but in Locke’s time it was a departure from the accepted way people believed the world worked. Before Locke, Rationalists such as René Descartes (1596-1650) thought that experience could not be trusted to define truth. People experience the world differently. Descartes explained how the world worked through deductive truths that could be proved, like mathematics and laws of science.
So, whether we are in the Rationalist camp and prove existence by believing ourselves to be thinking beings or in the Empiricist camp and grow our knowledge through our varied experiences, we as moderns can learn from both camps.
Current brain science has shown that we learn through listening to and reading stories. Our brains are primed for them. When we read a great book and get lost in the story, we identify with the characters and experience what they experience. This can and does either change or reinforce our own perspectives.
We want to know how the main character (real or imagined) makes decisions and deduces the consequences that inevitably develop because of those decisions.
This is for sure: Whether we’re contemplating yesterday, when love was such an easy game to play, or betting our bottom dollars that the sun will come out tomorrow, time keeps moving in only one direction. Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. (Nothing does anymore. You have to look it all up online.) We each learn our own Truths and our own truths by combining trial and error with observation.
As we march ahead bravely where some of us have been before and some of us have not, we’re bound to make mistakes by acting (or not acting), speaking when silence was called for, or be misunderstood or misunderstand someone else.
In this new calendar year, I’ll try hard to pay attention to all those mistakes and missteps, mine and my favorite main characters’. They’ll serve me better as learning experiences than as regrets.
Fresh starts? I’m sure I’ll have my share of those, too. Just not on a clean slate.
Here’s to a Happy New Year to all!
-—be curious (and embrace tomorrow)
FB: Here’s a thought for today commonly attributed to Walt Whitman: "Keep you face turned to the sunshine and the shadows will fall behind you."