The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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I’m writing this blog primarily to focus on storytelling; to dissect the mechanics different mediums and genres use to tell their stories. But before getting into that, let’s talk about why we tell stories in the first place. Yes, stories are fun, but they’re much more than the anecdotes you trade at parties or the plot to an entertaining film. They’re central to how we view the world. Take this election cycle for instance, you’ll often hear pundits discuss ‘controlling the narrative’, how our two political parties are fighting over which ‘story’ most Americans believe.

‘Narrative’ in politics is often presented as something other than fact; the ‘spinning’ of events to appear the way a politician wants them to vs the way they really are. But the truth is that everyone does this all the time in their own private lives. And I don’t mean actively ‘spin’ events your way, necessarily, but try to understand things through a narrative rather than facts.

I mean look back at own life, what do you see? Is it just a dry list of sense data, accumulated over a marked numbered of years? No, it’s a story. It has plots and characters and themes. There are days and nights you value more than others, like the night of your first kiss, or the day you received a cancer diagnose. You see these moments as defining you, as causing you to change your actions or values, as being different than the rest of your life.

And yet the most important day of your life had just as many hours as the least. And to an outside observer those two days could look identical. Even in the moment, a life defining event might have meant nothing to you. But when you looked back and organized your story, shaping the the events in your mind, you started to see the value and meaning within them.

This happens to us on a cultural scale too. Nations don’t just come into being by a bunch of people living on a land or moving to a new one. They rise up from epic origin stories, full of national heroes like Liu Bei or Aeneas or even George Washington. And beyond that there are creation myths found in every culture in human history, stories that tell us how the earth was made and why. We do this because we seek understanding and we find that within the narrative.

It’s the reason Jesus spoke in parables, and Plato wrote his philosophy down as series of dialogues. Stories are communication, the best way for humans to remember and process information. That’s not to say that facts and numbers aren’t important. Science and math definitely matter and should probably matter more. But fact is supposed to be like numbers, a hard immobile object that merely exist, having no value outside of context. The narrative is meant to be that context, to let us know what it all means.

But that’s not to say there aren’t inherent problems with processing information this way. As Stalin once pointed out: ‘The death of one man is tragedy, the death of millions, a statistic’ (and he definitely and killed enough people to know what he was talking about). We relate to the story of one person, while the lives of millions is too much for us to process.

And that’s not the only cognitive dissonance narratives cause. We often value two opposing stories as equal because they repeated from the same sources (looking at you global warming) and there’s also things like identity politics, were we hold onto a narrative because we believe it defines us even if it’s been proven inaccurate or damning, (Dinosaurs being taken out by ‘The biblical flood’, or the Southern fascination with the old confederacy are a couple examples)

So in the end does our narrative understanding of the world help us or hurt us? Well, probably neither, but it also doesn’t matter, because narratives are human. Stories are just how we understand and communicate and that’s not going to change. So when you understand how stories work, you start to understand how we work. And that’s true even of fun things like super hero origin stories or how video games use gameplay to convey themes, and I’m not just saying that so you’ll stick around for the next post.