47. The unsuspected power of stories, Part 1

In 2011, I wrote a book, still unpublished, about how stories work, called The Scheherazade Code. This series of posts draws on that book. This first post deals with how stories shape our sense of self.

Scheherazade

Stories are the machines through which we make sense of our world. Almost everything we think we know is a story. Even our sense of our own identity. Narrative is probably the oldest form in which humans have stored and transmitted wisdom. Our brains are ‘hard-wired’ to make and respond to stories – we are Homo Narrans, the story-making ape.
Stories are powerful because they help us organise things. They tell us what goes with what, what things mean, why they happen and how to assign praise and blame. Narratives are devices for organising events in a coherent way; they describe cause and effect; they lay out a timeline with beginning middle and end; they carry a judgement about the meaning of those events and how we should see them. Stories may illuminate and inspire, or they may deceive.

A story is more than a set of facts. The facts are arranged in a particular way. And there is more than one way to do this. This is important for how we tell and respond to stories. Stories highlight what is important in a situation and fade-out the unimportant.

Consider this statement.

‘The chief died. A month later, his wife died. The harvest was poor.’

This is a sequence of events, a diary list of a year, not a story. Now consider this.

‘The chief died. A month later, his wife died of grief.”

This second set of statements is more story-like, because it offers a reason for the sequence. It makes sense of them. And it invites our empathy: the wife died because of her grief at the chief’s death. Narrative is how we order and give meaning to unordered information. Note that it omits the fact about the harvest since it is not relevant to the story. This is an important feature of stories. They draw our attention to what is important in a situation and fade-out the unimportant. Of course, with a few more statements we could tell a different story, connecting different facts.

The chief died. The tribe fell into disarray, feuding over who was to succeed him. They neglected the fields, and the harvest was poor.’

In this case, the death of the chief’s wife is not included. The story has now become one about politics rather than about a personal relationship.
The same facts can be narrated in very different ways. This feature of stories makes them powerful and compelling ways of understanding the world, but it also opens them to manipulation. We can be fooled by stories. We can even fool ourselves.

The ‘I’ that each of us senses ourselves to be is also a constant narrative creation: a story which weaves together what is happening, why it happened, who is to blame and who should be praised. The philosopher Paul Ricouer argued that we make sense of own identities in much the same way as we make sense of characters in stories. We understand characters by way of the plot that ties together what happens to them, the aims and projects they adopt, and what they actually do. Similarly I make sense of my own identity by telling myself a story about my life. We are constantly bombarded by an inchoate mix of sensations, stimuli, motivations and thoughts. From these we weave a coherent story with ourselves as protagonist. Much of our motivation may be subconscious, things of which we’re not even aware. We fill in the gaps of the things below the level of consciousness with rationalizations that keep the narrative seamless.

This has important implications for our everyday lives. Narratives have to be simple. Their purpose is to select facts and throw what is important into sharp relief. By implication, what is unimportant to a story lies in shadow or is omitted altogether. In pursuit of a coherent story about our own lives and who we are, we may miss out quite a lot. We may trick other people. We may even trick ourselves. The collision of fictional and autobiographical stories is where the risk of trickery arises. We buy into other narratives. Advertisers are extremely good at selling us products through selling us self-images and aspirations.

Of course, our own life stories are not like the stories of fiction. Fictional stories have beginning middle and end, whereas ours are ongoing. We don’t know how ours are going to end. In fictional stories we understand why things are happening and what their consequences are. We don’t always know this about our own life stories. Stuff just happens. But as we pick out the elements of our own stories from the rushing torrent of life, currents begin to nudge them, pick them up and sweep them into a more stable flow. There is a reassurance once we can relate our own stories to those of literature, or those of people we admire. We develop a sense that we know why things are happening, and where things are heading. Fiction helps us structure autobiography. The world is full of Elizabeth Bennets reassessing their opinions of their Mr Darcy.

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