In fact, telling and understanding stories is so crucial to our ability to function, both individually and collectively, that the anthropologist John Niles observes that we are not so much members of homo sapiens (we’re not all wise) but homo narrans (we all tell stories).
We are not born as passive blank slates, but blank books that largely write themselves. The frameworks and structures for narrative pre-exist the self, embedded in our neuro-biology and physiology. They are not just in our head, but woven into our bodily systems and our senses: around our eyes, to the tips of our fingers, and in our gut. Through them we take in what the universe gives to us, and through our proprioception, mirror neurons, and lymbic system we reach even farther into our surroundings and, some say, even to the divine. We assemble this raw data of experience into narratives to orient and conceptualize ourselves in space and time. Stories do not grow out of who we are and what we do; in fact, it’s quite the reverse.
Disruptions to our ability to create or understand narrative (such as what happens with forms of Autism, schizophrenia, and Korsakoph’s) severely compromise the self and a person’s ability to function and flourish. And in the frightening case of Alzheimer’s, left only with fading fragments of past narratives, we eventually cease to exist. The broken structures that predated us live on even if we – the “we” who is “us” — do not. Perhaps there’s something to the ancient conviction that the way to immortality is to live on not in a body, but in a story. A person without a story is truly dead.
Narrative stories, then, are the means by which we process, understand, articulate, and perpetuate ourselves and others in time and space. Empiric facts and concrete experience are but elements in the story of our lives; they are markers in a tableau of impressions — a mosaic — that we arrange and rearrange to understand the present’s relationship to past and future. For, without a story nothing makes sense. And we need things to make sense. The human drive to construct a meaningful narrative is so strong that we will forge it out of choas or unrelated data, a phenomenon you can easily observe in the formation of conspiracy theories and the interpretation of dreams.
Collectively, it’s important to share stories. But it’s difficult to synchronize the time at which someone is ready and willing to share a story with someone who is ready and willing (and possibly needing) to hear it. Many cultures have formal and ritualized times in which stories are shared just to make sure this happens. We, who have less ritualized lives, often miss the opportunities. I so wish that I had taken the time to listen to more stories from my grandparents and my father. And when I asked them they were often unable, at times unwilling, and sometimes just too preoccupied, to do it. Even with the amounts of time I spent with them there were too few stories, and now so much I would like to know.
I hope you had some time over the holidays to share your stories, or that you will make some effort to do it over the next year. That’s one good thing about a blog like this. You get to tell stories when you’re ready. And maybe someone, at the right time, will listen.
But since stories are so important to ourselves and to others we care about, we also need, I think, to consider those stories that we don’t want to tell, those that we don’t want to hear, and those we don’t want to change. Once we have a story established we will often cling to it for all it’s worth, even if we know it to be untrue, and even if it does harm or disservice. Close the book on it. Stick it on the shelf as if it were over.
But the past is never in the past: it is always the story shaping the present. I tell my students that history is a dangerous occupation because people often prefer the story they have to finding out what actually happened. Understandably so. Like the Ghost of Bobby Dunbar, when new evidence emerges it changes the story and — whether we like it or not — changes who we are. No wonder that we work so hard to control our own story by suppressing elements or editing people in or out of them. Like Pandora’s box (which was really a jar, and out of which, originally, everything both good and bad came), you never know what’s going to come out of a story once you open the lid.
But since we are stories, shouldn’t we try, for ourselves and for each other, to get them right? And don’t we owe it to ourselves, and to others, to let them develop richly and authentically? Here’s to your story — and all our stories — in the next year. May they be the best, and most authentic, chapters yet.