We Live Inside Our Stories
We exist in stories. We are storied. There is not a moment in our life that we do not have a story going in our heads. Stories are how we process what’s going on in our brains. These are exclusively inside each of us; it’s where they exist and nowhere else.
We learn to share stories. They are blended and overlap. Some of them are remembered, but others are imagined or are projections. This is how we live together, through agreements about our stories.
We are vulnerable in our story-telling and in the way we store our stories.
Stories are so much a part of what is going on in our life that we may not realize or believe how inclusive our narrative life is. “For humans, story is like gravity: an inescapable field of force that influences everything…” is how Jonathan Gottschall put it in “Creatures of Story” Psychology Today, posted May 9, 2012. Gottschall lists 10 ways stories saturate our lives:
1. Neverland. Children play at story by instinct.
2. Dreams. Dreams are “an innate form of storytelling.” Dreams are defined as “intense sensorimotor hallucinations with a narrative structure.”
3. Fantasies. Daydreaming is the waking mind’s default state.
4. Religion. Religions are made out of stories. “Sacred fiction has dominated our lives like nothing else.”
5. Song. “The most popular music tells stories about protagonists struggling to get what they want.”
6. Video games. “…may become the 21st Century’s dominant form of storytelling.”
7. TV commercials.
8. Conspiracy theories.
9. Non-Fiction. “…now most long form journalistic efforts strive for suspenseful, character-driven narratives.”
10. Life stories. “A life story is a ‘personal myth’ about who we are deep down – where we come from and how we got this way.” But our memories are constantly being distorted by our hopes and dreams. “…our life stories are always changing, evolving, being edited, rewritten, and embellished by an unreliable narrator.”
Stories are pervasive. We are constantly immersed in the unfolding narrative of our living. It is therefore unavoidable that almost all of our stories are fragments, and this is what may deceive us into believing we are not conjuring up images in sequence that are invested with uninvestigated meaning. We think a story must have a beginning, content, and an end. But some of our going-on is interrupted and thoughts are random. Continuity is rare.
Pareidolia is “the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist.” It is what happens when we see a shape in the clouds or create narratives out of inkblots. Shane Jones says that our brains “crave” a storytelling formula. I am convinced Jones is right when he says, “Storytelling is a community act that involves sharing knowledge and values. It’s one of the most unifying elements of mankind, central to human existence, taking place in every known culture in the world.” [Shane Jones, “The Psychology of Stories: The Storytelling Formula Our Brains Crave”]
Although I am sure we never have a thought, prayer, urge, feeling, or plan that is not an element of a story, and I believe that story-telling is our primary human activity, it makes us vulnerable. When we are toddlers carrying on a conversation with our kitty-cat or our imaginary friend (mine was “Mrs. Brown”), the story-making has a different quality than when we are several decades older and projecting emotions and relationships onto our cat. I cringe when I see a social media clip in which a doting mother coos that her dog and her new baby are “brothers”. “Wendy (born yesterday) just loves the blanket Grandma knitted.” Those cringe-worthy stories are innocent enough, and every cute-baby story has a host of people who swear appreciation. But there are limits to our story-sharing beyond which we should not go because they lead to destructive consequences.
As a community of human beings, beneficiaries and victims to factors that intrude into our storylines (things like COVID or ice and snow, for example), we not only internalize stories, we externalize them. We vocalize them, which creates a response, which coalesces an ethos that affects the shared story, which leads to action, which would be some form of “fight or flight” if the perceived future is a threat. On the other hand, if the shared story projects a future in which there is no threat, when danger is real, “scoffing and inaction” might be destructive. Critical thinking is the skill that helps us sort story elements into their proper categories.
This is where it could be helpful to remember that story-generation and story-telling is what we are doing. This is why I am writing this essay to narrate how I am thinking.
Jesus told the rich man to sell everything, give the proceeds to the poor, and become a follower of Jesus. That’s part of a collection of Christian stories, as I trust you all know. Is the story a recalling of a conversation between Jesus and that man, or is it actually just how a subsequent narrator told the story? Careful study might help us conclude how it matters whether it’s one or the other. What analytical or theological tools can help us, 2000 years later, to include the story in our own stories? Shall we call the story “law” and say it applies to us because we too are relatively wealthy, or is the story a metaphor with a spiritual meaning? I suggest that if we realize the same words never mean the same thing to any two people, or even to our self at any two times, we can find common sense that encourages us to ask of one another, “What does that story mean to you?” There’s hope for a community that asks that sincerely.
We are never as curious about anything as we are about each other’s stories.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.