It has been said the man is the story making animal. We are really quite compulsive about it. From gossip and tweets to tomes of history and scripture to novels to sweet nothings in the night, we make stories. We fill libraries and cable channels and theaters and bar stools with them. We have painted them on the walls of caves and tombs and every other possible surface, carved them in stone, inscribed them on clay tablets, sculpted them in clay and stone and bronze, and told them in dance and mime and music. When we wake from sleep, somehow we know that today is a continuation of the story of yesterday, that the “I” of the morning is the same “I” that went to sleep. I have seen too that peculiar form of devastation we call dementia in which a person looses their stories until the time line of their life is only the last few minutes. There is a thing that humans do which, when I think on it, looks to be made of stories. We call it mental illness.
What are the voices and visions of schizophrenia doing but telling stories? Is not much of OCD built on stories of what could or will happen if a certain act is not done just so or avoided at all cost? And the dark whisperings of grief, guilt, unworthiness, and disaster of depression, are these not stories? So are the fantasies of invincibility and ecstasy in mania. The implacable worries of anxiety are woven of stories. Even when they torment us or lead us into folly, we cannot resist the story making instinct. Of course, over the centuries we have made many different stories of how those conditions happen.
At an even more basic, deeper level we are another story. From the first strands of DNA that intertwined into the double helix and leaned to separate and copy themselves, and then how to combine with others into new pattens, we each and every other living thing on Earth are the latest telling of a story. That tale of leaning, adapting, survival, and of ancestors beyond counting has been told in every one of us, our shape and structure down to our most basic chemical details. Now, we learn that even our personal stories of pain, joy, trauma, success, stress, and excitement is noted in our epigenetic inheritance and passed on.
We go to stories for so many reasons. In what those of the theater call The Scottish Play we find a cautionary tale of ambition. In Othello, among others, the price of listening to the counsel of jealousy. We go to hear of tragedies that make any of ours seem bearable, for romance, for adventure, for laughter. We go across seas with Odysseus sharing his hope of returning home to the land and woman he loves. In The Mahabharata, the great Vedic epic, on the eve of battle the hero Arjuna is assailed by doubts and the god Krishna sits him down to explain the nature of life, Karma, and reality while the world holds its breath, and gives us the teaching recorded as the Gita. We go to stories for inspiration and wisdom too. We have made stories of creation, seeking explanation of how the world came out of nothingness or primal chaos, how life and consciousness arose, that greatest of all mysteries. We go to our books to borrow, like Mr. Poe, surcease of sorrow. We go too to learn what love is in all its variety.
Our stories matter. We live in them and through them. They shape how we see the world and our place in it. The story is told of the wise man who sat by a road. Travelers would stop and ask him what the people were like in the city ahead. He would ask what the people were like in the city they had come from. They would say whatever they said about that, and he would answer that they would find the same sort ahead. Our stories matter, those we choose, and those that choose us. Each one we invent or encounter becomes part of us and we of it. The ones we create together are our relationships, our cultures, our histories. They always matter. We live them. They live in us. Feed the best of them.