I was sitting in a vegan diner with my friend Brendan eating a buffalo “chicken” burrito when the topic of stories came up.
“People are geared to think in stories,” he offered as he ate the Gravy Train, an item off the breakfast menu, even though it was lunch. “The odds of getting murdered in Denver are, like, 20,000 to 1, but then someone says, ‘Oh yeah? Well I heard a guy got killed just a few blocks from here the other day,’ and all of the sudden you feel like Denver is super dangerous.”
The reason is simple: we prefer information in this form—it engages our empathy and is easier to remember. (It must have been a successful evolutionary strategy for using information about the past to build predictions about the future.) As someone who works in marketing, I aim to craft memorable stories about sponsored athletes, products, and brands—without a good story to tell, information is only so much noise in an increasingly noisy world.
A story can show us the value of a product in a way that bypasses our analytical centers and goes straight to the emotional ones. Take this Google India video about friends separated by the partitioning of India and Pakistan, for example. By way of a story, a political reality becomes tangible, comprehensible… as does the value of a product.
A story can lead us to a larger truth, the way the story of Eric Garner’s choking death at the hands of police is one polarizing instance of a real problem. The story gives us a relatable entry point into the problem, which is large and complex and troubling. Like the bit of dust around which a raindrop forms, a simple story can allow us to build a more rich and nuanced understanding of a bigger reality. Or it can simply reinforce our pre-held views and lead to further division between groups of people. That’s the problem with stories: they’re wide open to interpretation.
In cases like the one Brendan mentioned of murder statistics in Denver, stories can often lead us to incorrect conclusions. They trick us into feeling something to be true, even when the bigger statistical picture shows just the opposite. “Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story,” writes Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal. Thus, politicians use stories to warp our view into agreement with their agenda. The news and social media are clogged with stories selected and crafted specifically to hook our attention rather than convey any particularly important information.
Our entire worldview is encoded in stories. The world’s great religions are built entirely on stories; we spend billions every year on movies, books, and magazines; increasingly we spend our time reading and watching stories on our computers and mobile devices…
But perhaps the most interesting and stories are the ones we create constantly in our head—the stories we generate when we picture something in the future or recount something in the past: Stories about how we’ll perform at work or in a competition, stories about our past interactions, stories about what other people think of us. These stories can create feelings of anxiety or confidence, fear or anger. They can make us behave differently than we otherwise would. Our stories not only color but shape the world around us.
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are the most powerful and problematic. Are we good looking, intelligent, successful… ultimately the way we see ourselves is formulated into a story. We present ourselves through stories, too, but should be careful not to believe them too fully, for fear of limiting ourselves or obscuring important truths. We are not our alma maters or our résumés, we’re not our hobbies or neighborhoods, our relationships nor our criminal records.
Though stories can convey great amounts of information, they can never tell us everything. And there are many stories, representing many different perspectives, to be told about even a single event. This is why we must listen to the stories that surround us with an open yet critical ear, and remain open to revising our own story from year to year, day to day, even moment to moment. I think this is what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.”
For all their uses, stories can blind us to the untranslatable nature of the world, the essential suchness of being that resists language and narrative and can be experienced clearly only in the pastless and futureless now. As with the motion of a penman’s hand, our lives are written (or do we write them?), but we only truly experience them at the point where the pen’s tip meets the paper. The rest is nothing but stories.