The Nature of Story

Budding_MapleThis morning the birds at our feeder are quiet. Perhaps this reflects the return of chilly weather; yet it stands in contrast to the din that greeted us each morning earlier this week, when the temperature was above seasonal norms.

We love bird song, and have been saddened by the steady decline in songbirds, and song, over the past several years. Increasingly the possibility of a silent spring seems more threatening and immediate. This week’s cacophony of song was a welcome event.

I wonder whether children can grasp the enormity of our losses, having nothing to compare the present moment to. In order to understand change, one needs a reference point; initial conditions are the central stuff of stories: “Once upon a time”…..

We humans are literally born into story. My daughter came into this world during an ice storm, making the trip to the hospital an adventure story! Yet, aren’t all of our births and lives adventure stories? They are also coming of age stories (don’t we each come of age many times?), pilgrimage stories, and love stories. Everything we do, or experience, has the capacity to become story. All that is required is a teller and an audience, something Freud noted, as he developed his concept of the Superego, the internal storyteller who narrates us into consciousness. Freud believed that our self-awareness frames story; we know we were born and will die, that our time here, in this life world, is finite.

Of late, psychology, neuroscience, and literary theory has turned their combined attention to what seems another inherently human ability: the capacity to imagine alternative worlds. Story allows us to explore a seemingly infinite number of possible worlds; we imagine alternative futures and pasts, even alternative presents. This capacity for inhabiting a range of possible worlds is central to the work of Narrative therapy and much trauma informed work, offering the promise of healing.

Narrative theory engages us in thinking deeply about story, and about the possibilities inherent in rich story production. It reminds us that our worlds are structured by our neurology, by the function of our brains and nervous systems, and by culture and life experience. Other configurations might create dramatically different worlds; for instance, dogs share a world with us, even as their noses shape experiences we can only imagine. Who knows what stories earthworms or rocks, let alone Martians, tell.

I like to remember that the stories we live and share are in themselves expressions of Nature, and that even here, on this small planet, we interact with Others, whose stories, and worlds, are radically different from our own. It appears that Nature complexifies and diversifies over time, that it has a predilection for rich story development. Given the opportunity, Nature will explore all of the possible worlds and futures! Seen from this perspective, out very human need to make, and tell, stories becomes yet another expression of Nature.

Got a good story to share?


12 thoughts on “The Nature of Story

  1. I ran across an Ed Abbey quote today: “Life is cruel. Compared to what?” The thing about our stories is that they say volumes about US, about our imagination , expectations, etc. We should probably be wary of thinking they inform us about Truth beyond the scope of the truth about us. In other words, our stories can inform us, but should they be imposed on the natural world?

    1. We must tell stories, but we don’t have to impose our narratives on others. Of course, we humans tend to impose our stories, assuming these narratives to be somehow more true. Yet, as Ed suggested, they speak more about our expectations and ways of understanding the world, than they do about the deep structures of things. I like to think that all good stories also REFLECT those deep structures.

  2. I agree stories are an expression of nature, as you so eloquently stated. We are born into them. We feel what came before. Stories and feelings are passed on just like blue eyes, or a genetic predisposition. That doesn’t mean we can’t escape the bad ones. But it may take more time than we think. Take care Michael.

    1. Yes, we changing stories does take time. I’m not sure we ever escape the painful ones; perhaps we just transform them into something more meaningful and sustainable.

  3. I have a feeling I will be revisiting this post many times. It is layered and textured like a fine painting, that you keep finding new treasures within. I love it. Namaste

  4. This is a wonderful post, Michael. Fear not…the songbirds are all at our feeder here in Calif desert, fighting over it, in fact–as are the hummers. In 2 days time, I will be retiring them for the season and hope they will migrate back to Reno with us.

    1. Hi Victoria, yes, the feeder is busy and the birds seem happy. It is good to witness the renewal of the Earth. Of course, the cardinals are trying to hog the feeder but without much success.

  5. Yes, stories truly connect us across time, space, and culture. Before the written word, there were stories which passed on the cultural treasures and wisdom from one generation to the next. I fully intend to tell my new grand children whatever stories I can remember and concoct, even if their father thinks they’ll need “Baby Einstein” so they won’t be at a “disadvantage.”

Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.