Oh, the Stories We Tell
This post is dedicated to Sheri Skuja
A Story Teller in her own right
Want to hear a good story? Sure you do, because we all like a ripping good yarn. We’re a story telling species. It was necessary for us to discover fire, so we’d have some place warm and comfortable to tell each other stories. The word is derived from ‘history,’ from the Greek and Latin historia, ‘narrative of past events. That would imply an accurate account, but even history isn’t always accurate, as it’s usually written by the victors in various conflicts.
We teach our children by way of stories, whether they be folklore, fairytales, or Aesop’s Fables. And what do children want every night before we tuck them in? A bedtime story. Libraries, one of civilization’s greatest ideas, have a program by which they indoctrinate children into a life of reading and knowledge — story time. We’re hooked on stories. Books and films all tell a tale, and so do songs. Television has dramas, soap operas, miniseries, and sitcoms. So-called reality shows also tell stories — really bad ones. Even the news is a collection of stories, which is why they’re called news stories.
Lego toys has announced they plan to create new, story-themed sets. One will be the Death Star from “Star Wars,” and there will also be Indiana Jones and other movie themes to come.
Fiction is one of the most popular of story forms, and genres like crime, mystery, romance, western, horror, and science fiction/fantasy all have hordes of devotees. When I worked at the library, I’d see lonely, overweight women come in each week and check out stacks of romance paperbacks; the same for elderly men with their westerns. I suppose these stories reaffirm our hopes that things will eventually work out for the best, even if they don’t always in real life.
There’s another story form — fiction disguised as truth. Fox (alleged) News makes up their own stories, then passes them off as fact. We call that propaganda, or if you prefer, damned lies. The heavily edited video by James O’Keefe helped to destroy Acorn, and the one Andrew Breitbart doctored up of Shirley Sherrod had a similar affect on her career.
Advertising has taken the lie to new heights. If you take this drug, you’ll feel better. Do you want to achieve your true potential, while gaining valuable career training? Then join the military (they leave out the part of the story where you get killed, or end up in a wheelchair for the rest of your life). If you drink this beer, you can be partying down with these beautiful young girls in bikinis. They don’t care if you’re bald, pot-bellied, with bad teeth. Just drink the beer.
Narrative is the relating of a story, in order of time. The word makes me think of compelling first person narratives, like the voices of Celie, in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, or Twain’s Huck Finn. The word has become part of the political lexicon, and has to do with the slant, or spin, put on certain ideas. Right-wing radio has its own particular narrative; Obama is a Kenyan, Muslim, socialist antichrist who wants to take our guns away. Liberals hate America. Poor people are lazy, no good freeloaders. These distortions are meant to engender fear and paranoia, because there’s profit in it. The ideas spewed from these shows are so similar it’s as if they were all following a script. It falls under the category of horror fiction. I also consider it at the least, borderline domestic terrorism.
An example from recent news will illustrate different narratives of the same story. On Dec. 14th, a deranged man shot and killed his mother, then twenty-seven others at a school, twenty of them young children. Even in the light of recent mass shootings, it was shocking. From the Left came calls for some kind of rational gun control, such as reinstating the assault weapons ban. From the Right came cries for everyone to arm themselves, as gun sales “shot” through the roof. “If the mother had been armed she could have shot him and stopped it right there” (except that she was shot with her own gun). The lowest depths of the debate were plumbed by religious extremists. Fox’s Mike Huckabee said it happened because we took God out of the schools (never mind that God, being omnipresent, can’t be “taken” anywhere). James Dobson of Focus On the Family (focus on your own damn family!) said it was because America has turned its back on God. And a Tennessee minister, Sam Morris, said it was because “public schools spend too much time teaching evolution and how to be a homo.” Why these people prefer some wrathful, Bronze Age desert god over the loving son he sent to redeem them, I cannot understand. On that subject, how did Jesus communicate deep truths to his disciples? By means of parables.
The eyes, which are the windows of the soul, have their stories too, and they never lie, I don’t care what the Eagles sang about lying eyes.
One of America’s favorite stories about ourselves, is that we are the greatest country in all of history. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, people seem to need to believe this. It’s a form of magical thinking (see “The Power of Magical Thinking” in the archives).
We all have a story we tell ourselves about who we are. I’m not good for anything, or I’m a beautiful person. I heard a tragic story of a girl abused by her parents, who burned her with cigarettes. The story she told herself was that she was bad, and that’s why she had to be disciplined in this way (she has learned a different story today). Someone suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder might tell themselves that repeating an action so many times will keep things in check, and provide them needed structure in their lives. Fortunately, we are all editors, and we can learn to change our own stories.
The best tales have been around for generations, sometimes thousands of years. Indigenous cultures all have their creation legends, and epics like The Holy Bible and the Quran, Beowulf, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Bhagavad-Gita, or the plays by Aeschylus or Shakespeare, are told and retold. These legends have staying power because they contain certain universal truths. Anthropologists and social historians may tell us that as our languages developed and evolved, we moved from basic communication to storytelling. I personally believe it’s the other way around. We had to invent language because we all had stories to tell. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.