It starts even before we’re born. Our parents, expecting a child, try to imagine what kind of life we’ll lead. They talk over coffee or whisper to each other late at night, trying to see what the future holds. After we’re born, we join in, telling ourselves stories about the doll or the toy car we’re playing with. The stories are very simple at first, but as we grow from toddlers to children they become more complex. Many of those stories are wildly fantastical, totally unrealistic, but we tell them just the same. In our teen years we might make up stories about who likes whom, or what a certain teacher’s home life is like. The stories are less fantastical, and more about understanding others, and how we fit in. By the time we become adults, the stories we tell ourselves and each other tend to be more realistic. We gush about our trip to Disney World, our new job, our favorite show or movie. Different stories, perhaps, but stories nonetheless.
This need, the need to tell stories, is one we all have, one of the defining features of being human. Some people will claim they aren’t good at storytelling, or that stories are for kids, but they are wrong. I would go so far as to say we can’t function without them.
Storytelling is so ingrained in our minds that it permeates society, culture and language. We tell local stories, national stories, religious stories, historical stories. You can make a pretty solid case that nearly all human communication is rooted somehow in our need to tell stories. The ancient Greeks explored issues of morality, purpose and ethics with stories. Jesus of Nazareth used parables to try to teach us His lessons. Folklore and mythology, fables and fairy tales are necessary for us to understand how the world works and what it expects from us. In fact, from a neurological point of view, they way our brains retain information and encode memory is by association with other memories and associations. Our brain remembers that movie we saw better because we saw it with a friend, or it was our birthday, or it was a sequel to another movie we love. Our entire personal history, and the larger cultural history around us, is built on stories.
Not all of the stories have to be fiction either. I am sure there are people in this world who only connect with stories of the ‘real world’. If that works for them, then great. It isn’t so much about the content of the stories as it is the purpose. Why are we telling the story in the first place? It turns out they are an incredibly useful tool, a fantastic way to educate and learn. We use stories to practically comprehend ideas that might be too big for us, or too complex, or perhaps very alien. Almost every American could tell you stories about George Washington. One of the most popular is the tale of him cutting down a cherry tree and, when his father confronts him over it, he says “I cannot tell a lie. I cut down the cherry tree.” If you happen to know that the tale of George and the cherry tree is a fiction, does it change what the story means?
We tell that tale in America because it’s an extremely fast way to teach children that George Washington, the most important of our Founding Fathers, was regarded in his day as an honest man. Really honest. In comparison to his peers, he was the most truthful and principled of them all by a great margin, and that is a very important piece of the American puzzle. A historian could cite you chapter and verse of Washington’s life to prove how serious he believed honesty was, and that would certainly give you a more accurate picture including his less clearly honest decisions. That takes time, however, and children need to learn about more than just George Washington’s honesty. In effect, we don’t have the time to give all the details.
We do the same thing with our personal stories. You cannot remember every detail of every situation, and why would you want to? You only need to remember the part of the story that matters for you. That becomes the purpose of the story. Why it matters to you is exactly why you remember it. For example, at my mother’s funeral I learned a detail of her life I had never known before. That moment is clear in my mind…or is it? I was standing at the back of the viewing room looking at a small table with little mementos of her life, her wedding photo, a picture of her in nursing school. I picked something up, a card I believe, and I read about how as a young woman she had wanted to be a pediatric nurse. I remember the general setting, small table, various items, how I read instead of heard it, even the direction I was facing in the room. But so many details are missing. Was it a card I picked up? What music was playing? Where was my father at that moment? I don’t have those details because they aren’t important to the story.
My mother was a nurse all her life, but not a pediatric nurse. That detail is now part of the larger story I have in my memory of my mother, specifically who she was as a human being. It changed my perception of who she was, and that makes it important to me. The story is about my mother, about her life, and what her story means in my life. Who cares what song was playing? It’s irrelevant to the story, so my memory dropped it, and that’s how it should be.
So we use storytelling constantly because we need to. Storytelling is a form of shorthand, allowing us personally, and society as a whole, to communicate important ideas quickly, and it’s the best way our brains learn. Embrace your stories, but more than that I would hope you think about how you use stories to shape your own view of the world. The way you deal with stories can have a huge impact on your life, and I’ll talk about that more in my next post.