Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Telling Stories

I've been thinking a  lot lately about something I heard Terry Pratchett (author the Discowrld series and other novels) say in an interview.

"What are we as humans? Chimpanzees with an amazing gift for telling ourselves stories."

This really struck a chord with me, and I definitely think he is on to something.  The fact that we tell ourselves and each other stories for amusement needs little explaination.  But the more I thought about this, the more I realized how many other facets of our nature relate to story telling.  Story-telling has incredible power.

One of the producer's of NOVA described his program once as "the story of science." Certainly, history is the telling of stories, be that military history, scientific history or religious history.

More then that, Science itself is a form of story telling.  It is the story of "what exists".  When a scientist proposes a theory, that theory is a story about the world.  The rest of science is testing that story to see if it matches well with what we can perceive in the world.

Religion too, is a story.  A good net-friend of mine who also happens to be an Epsicopal priest once told me he sees religion as "the story of why".  The meaning of what is in the world.  

The stories of science and religion have had huge impacts on how we  live but they arent the only stories we tell ourselves.   If science is the "stories of what" and religion "the stories of why" then history is "the stories of who."  Who we understand ourselves to be is a result of the stories we tell ourselves, and those stories in turn become the basis for almost everything else we do.

The process of invention is also the process of story telling. Its the story of 'what if.'  A man once imagined what might happen if a wire with an electric charge through it were palced in a near-vaccum.  The result was the first practical electric lightbulb.

You will note that when i use the term 'story' in this way, it is not pajorative and non-judgmental.  I am not drawing a distinction between the "real" and "imaginary."  That's because often one man's fact IS another man's fiction.  What we decide to tell ourselves is fact and what we decide to tell ourselves is fiction is ITSELF just another story.  It is an arbitrary decision we make for ourselves and only has value in that it separates the stories we do apply to understanding ourselves and the world from the ones we don't.

We organize our lives and what we do about them with the stories we tell ourselves.  In that sense ALL stories are 'fact.'  They are all powerful and can change the world for better or worse.  In that sense all stories are equally "real."  By the same token, all the stories we tell ourselves come from our ability to imagine.  The world does not contain stories, just events.  Stories are what we make of those events using our imagination.  In that sense, all stories are equally imaginary.

But what is undeniable, to my mind, is how they permeate every facet of what we understand to be our existence as human beings.

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