When Stories Create Us

dalailama I am reading a wonderful book called Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-narratology, by Arthur Frank. It reminds me a bit of another counterintuitive book I read about a decade ago, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, in that it questions our dominant narrative of being in control of our own actions. That’s so important to us in the modern world, isn’t it? I think many of us would agree that being free to make our own choices, whether it’s what to have for dinner, where to live or whom, and whether, to marry, is worth fighting for, if not dying for.

The authors of these books might at first be amused to have them compared, because one, Frank, is a narratologist writing about storytelling, while the others, Dawkins, is a biogist writing about genes. However in both cases the fascinating point is made that while we think we are in charge, actually we have limited self-determination. Frank argues we literally embody the stories we are told by our families, our schools, our houses of worship, our governments, the media, etc. Almost like automatons, we are “programmed” to live out certain scripts. Sometimes we may rebel against those scripts, but even our rebellion is choreographed. In other words, how do we know how to behave at all? How do we know what to like, dislike, value, scorn? By virtue of the stories with which we come into contact. (A simplification of the gene argument, which is less interesting to me, for obvious reasons, is that the goal of our genes is to survive, and so they induce us to do all kinds of things to stay fertile and multiply.)

Now without going so far as to echo Martin Luther’s argument against free will, I will quickly state another side of this argument, which I am, again, oversimplifying. Education, travel, talking to a variety of people and reading a variety of material, critical thinking—all these elements can at the very lest help us determine the best course of action for ourselves. Of course, even that will be a script. It is, in other words, probably impossible to live a way, or think a way, that has absolutely no precedent. What’s more, it’s exhausting. I read once, for example, that the brain is designed to NOT have to think. In other words, thinking expends a lot of energy, which is always assumed by the body to be at a premium, Big Macs notwithstanding. So our brains are geared to develop shortcuts, to rely on old patterns (neuronal pathways) that we can travel and retravel and retravel again. It’s a whole lot easier to walk the same way to the bus stop, or drive the same way to work, or get ready for bed in the same order, than to have to rethink and reorder it every day.

What does this line of argument mean for us on a daily basis? First, it’s just interesting; at least I find it so. Second, it tells us that stories are more important than we ever thought. They actually do things and make us do things for them, in part to keep them alive. And third—maybe we don’t have to feel quite so bad about our poor decisions and actions.

On the other hand, maybe we can’t feel so proud when we succeed.








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