Stories are everywhere. They play such a vital role in all that we do. We tell them, listen to them, build our lives around them and sometimes, give our lives because of them. We know millions of different ones. Rumour has it, there isn’t an original story left to be told. Since time began, we have woven stories into the very fabric of our lives, the essence of our beings, and will continue to do so.
Your life is a story. Regaled on occasion, for love, employment, friendship and family. We tell ourselves our own story. Every day, the voice inside your head is trying to move you along with a narrative. The hopes and dreams we cling to are but the stories we hope to realise.
Stories drive us on; they give things meaning; make the incomplete whole, allow the dead to live on; bring the future into the present. They are so powerful, it barely bears thinking about: stories start wars yet also broker peace; they are at the heart of our justice system, at the basis of each country’s government, and every religion stands upon foundations built by a good story. Stories bring life into the world and usher it out. If there is anything in this life worth knowing, it is a good story.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is how we make stories work. Or should I say, how stories make us work. We love stories so much, we employ them quicker than the mind can realise. We can create a story in the blink of an eye. Extraordinarily, the human mind is so able, so adept, so ready to listen to stories, we can defeat and diminish ourselves in the process.
If a friend tells us he’s not coming to our party, we invent a reason for his no show before we have put down the phone. If we hear of a failed marriage, we create a multitude of explanations as to why it fell apart. If you are told of one man’s unfortunate predicament, it will doubtless be accompanied by a juicy tale as to how he got there. If our sporting team loses, someone will push forth a fabrication about the officials or opposition.
As you can see, some types of story shout louder than others. And because it is very difficult to prove a negative – that something doesn’t exist – there is far less resistance to work against. This is, of course, why conspiracies work so well; why malignant gossip travels so far. We are so eager to connect the dots, the dots themselves start to play ‘second fiddle’. The truth slides dangerously into the background as our mind soothes its paranoid self by telling a familiar story, which makes sense to us.
This is a very difficult process to spot and act against. Especially as there are people in positions of power who understand how effective good stories can be. They are very willing to tell you a narrative that they know will play on your insecurities. It will dance with your preconceived ideas and worst fears, and ultimately, get you on their side. They will knowingly stretch and emphasise elements of the information to tickle those already held grievances; they will skip key facts, omit relevant counter-remarks, embellish details; join up your thinking in a way that, crucially, makes you feel better about yourself.
To operate well in life, amongst all of the different narratives trying to sweep us up, we have to be careful. We must exercise judicious prudence in the throes of such strong currents. We have to recognise our own fallibilities and take a step back every time someone comes to us with an argument. We must be at pains to listen to all sides, to understand full processes, to measure the logic rather than the emotional forces that appear so potent.
It can be done. It takes patient endeavour and a large amount of sifting, but it is worth it. Asking the right questions to the right people will get you the right answers. There is a truth to everyone’s story but finding the truth may well have you occupying a middle ground. Unfortunately, this position is not as sensational or sellable as others. It is a position that does not absolve any situation of issue but shows that those issues owe their existence to factors much more reasonable and logical than those lobbied. In fundamental terms: it’s not as much fun. But nevertheless, it’s imperative. We need to keep doing it and railing against the adverse power of stories. Failure to do so will leave lasting damage on others and ourselves.
And let’s face it, our own story is far too short to do that.
Written for the late Mike Georgeson and all who loved him