Story is so central in human existence that it often goes unexamined. It actually has two dominant meanings, which in my experience often get merged, confused, and in time build contradictory narratives. Both meanings refer to an account of something. The first is an
account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment. The second is an account of past events in someone's life or in the evolution of something. In both meanings, someone is providing an account, a report or description.
One of the many powerful lessons emergent from one’s children becoming adults is to listen to and ponder their stories of life experiences I shared with them, and realize that their story of the experience and mine are quite different. Broad strokes are the same: we were camping, for instance. The rest is all quite unique. When I first encountered this phenomenon, my initial response was to try to convince my daughters that my “story” was the “true” one. In time, in the work of wisdom, I learned to shut up and listen. Sometimes I ask questions for detail or clarification, but in general I now try to listen and learn.
Now, as is perhaps apparent, both their stories and my stories are “true” in that they are an account of a lived experience as told by one person reporting a singular perspective. They are also both “not true” since in both cases, the stories are shaped and confined by the specific independent reporter, expressing the limitations and biases of the reporter. Each of us, as reporters, have some insights that are theoretically “true” and concurrently harbor lacunae of ignorance, mental blocking of data, or limited capacity to integrate complex information, to name only a few delimitations. So, as the stories unfold, they may bring insight and awareness, yet are only useful if understood as incomplete, even perhaps distorted. Stuff gets messy when a deep belief that “my stories” are TRUE sets in.
As is perhaps obvious, this “story” about my daughters and me eventually generalized outward to all stories, everywhere, from everyone. Stuff gets messy when any story teller builds and embraces a conviction that “my stories” are TRUE. Working with conflict for over thirty years, the clash of stories is the first place I look for the disconnect between individuals or groups. If one or both parties genuinely believe that their story is the one and only “TRUE” story, the likelihood of moving past the conflict is more challenging and uncertain. Introducing the possibility of an “incomplete”, “distorted”, or “contrived” story is rarely attractive when one is absolutely certain of the “TRUTH”.
I am always charmed by the story told simply to entertain. And when it does, there is a joy and delight in the experience. At some intuitive level, there is an awareness that this special form of entertainment is happening, and an appreciation emerges. Reading a great novel or a sharp keen short story evokes this in me. Good movies have the same effect, especially comedies. There is not only the story, but also the awe and appreciation I feel for the story teller.
And there are other stories too, quite different from those designed to entertain. In these I believe we often “write” the stories that meet our needs. Increasingly I am no longer curious about the accuracy of a story but about what needs the story teller is meeting by telling the story. In my experience, the lurking deepest emotion that undergirds most stories that fail to entertain is fear. News stories are often crafted to trigger fear which brings readers to the story. Reporters, we are told, must do this to survive, generate a profit. Actually saying what is “new” has been replaced by what is fear evoking.
We also write personal stories designed to diminish or offset our fears. We reason: “If my story is true, I have no need to fear”. This reasoning may undergird many personal stories. Because I am shaped by the conviction that “We laugh at what we no longer fear”, if there is no laughter, the story has not succeeded, and indeed may have made things worse. The most startling, and perhaps most tragic version of this, in my experience, is the story constructed to avoid self-awareness and self-honesty, understandably fearful propositions.
Which shifts me back to my interest in courage, the capacity to feel and face fear and act in spite of the fear from a place of personal conviction about right and wrong. This fascinates me now: Do we write stories that we hope absolve us from the difficult decision to act from a place of courage? What is the price of a story designed to evade acts of courage? What discovery about me is sacrificed to story?
“And were an epitaph to be my story I'd have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone: I had a lover's quarrel with the world.”
- Robert Frost -