On Narratives

I suspect, although I can’t prove it, that we’re the only species that tells each other stories. I’d love to imagine Mother Wolf telling the cubs tales of great hunts back in the day; one seagull entertaining another with anecdotes of his adventures in the annual migration; one mountain goat getting a cheap laugh among his peers with another “Three sheep went into a bar” joke; wise old Orang telling the babies the mystic tale of how the universe came to be.

But I don’t think so.

Whatever the cause – a larger brain; a language that allows us to talk about the past, the future, and the imagined time that never was – we live each day in the middle of countless stories.

When I talk about “narrative”, I’m not making any distinction between fiction and the “truth” – at least not yet. Whether it’s a Batman comic book, a news story in the New York Times, a barroom joke, playground gossip, a Werner Herzog documentary, a presidential election campaign, an autobiography, an urban legend, or a preacher’s sermon – they are all narrative, they are all stories, true or not, structured or not.

We use stories all the time – as explanation, as motivation, justification. Narrative tells us about our past, our greatest achievements, our hopes for the future. It is our history, our religion, our mythology, our origin story, our justification for future acts.

We use narrative to understand our place in the structures of family, friends, workmates; to understand or justify our place in the world; to argue for the superiority of one idea over another; to assert one nation’s superiority over another, or a government’s superiority over its people.

We are surrounded by storytellers. They mark the moments of birth, marriage, and death – formal religious sermons, much less formal Best Man’s speeches. They explain world events in newspapers, they persuade us to elect one candidate over another. They sit at family gatherings, passing down family history to the next generation. There are the obvious storytellers of movies, books, pop songs. But history is story, politics is story, religion is story. Our lives are stories: narratives imposed on events so we can understand them. Sometimes, if we can’t see the story, we feel lost in our lives.

Somewhere in our brain, we need the structure of stories – it is a simple structure, with only a limited number of forms. It is heroes and villains, quests and journeys. Love, betrayal, loss, and death.

In modern Western society, it is used to explain, to sell, to persuade, and to make us conform. Stories shape our lives, make us do things we would never otherwise do – whether through inspiration or fear. The stories we accept into our lives – the stories we incorporate into and make part of our lives – shape us, create us, define us.

We think we’re the singer but, for most of us for most of the time, we’re really the song.

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