Making Meaning

This post may appear to some to fall under the heading of “magical thinking”—a psychological term that refers to the way people (who are generally considered neurotic) make meaning out of situations where, to the naked eye, there is none. For example, somebody steals a pair of shoes, then falls while walking in them and hurts herself, and attributes that fall to the bad karma or the punishment that is due her. The person who calls this type of interpretation magical thinking is making a judgment that there is in fact no connection whatsoever between the two events.

In this post, I am not interested in the metaphysical, or some may say “new age” interpretation  behind the theft of the shoes and the fall. What I am concerned with, what I find really interesting, is the connection that the thief is making between the two events. Because that’s the essence of storytelling—taking seemingly disparate events and connecting them to make meaning. 

We do it all the time. We say, “Third time’s a charm,” when we have tried something twice and it hasn’t worked. Or we attribute some painful event to the fact that it happened on Friday the 13th, or after a mirror broke. I purposely use superstitions in these examples, because that’s what superstitions are—determining a causal relationship to at-first-glance unrelated events.

But superstitions are false, you may say, so how is this a good thing? One of the first things we need to establish about the field of storytelling studies is that scientific, verifiable, documentable truth is not necessarily its stock-in-trade. (Think of the difference between the father and son in the Tim Burton movie “Big Fish.”) On the other hand, the Truth of human experience, universal truth, often is. So whether or not a controlled, reproducible (remember your scientific method!) experiment can be designed that asserts the validity of superstitions or karma is not the point. What is the point is that the human mind can make that connection.

And why is that important? Because that means that narrative is inherently ethical. When we make these causal relationships, we are asserting that actions have consequences. That our feet leave footsteps. That we can’t simply tramp through life letting the chips fall where they may.

Now we all know that people use storytelling for ill as well as good. When Adolf Hitler attributed the problems of Germany to the presence of Jews he was determining a causal relationship that was not only false, it was incendiary. People regularly put tools that are perfectly benign, like a hammer or a pain medication, to ill use. But the general message that we get from storytelling, that our lives have meaning, that our actions have consequences, is an important one for us all. Even the next Hitler.

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  • Irene Savarese  On October 30, 2010 at 8:59 am

    Thanks Caren, very meaningful! Irene

  • Florence Ferreira  On November 1, 2010 at 10:13 am

    This is a fascinating subject. Narrative is definitely powerful! I’m still having a hard time not blaming all the problems of this country on Saddam Hussein and the weapons of mass destruction! 🙂

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