Why We Tell Stories

image from www.geneix.com

Poets and writers have always always used their words as a way to peel away, embody, or illuminate some conception of higher truth. What I want to study is not a radically new concept. Far from it. The notion that storytelling can reveal or tap into spiritual understanding is all over. It’s just hard to talk about academically.

In searching for other resources for this kind of work, I found almost too many examples of people who demonstrate deep, rich understandings of narrative and how a human tradition of storytelling can transform and empower.

Sarah Kay is one of these artists and wordsmiths. Her TEDtalk is a wonderful demonstration of the power of storytelling. She tells several personal stories about herself and her family, and at the same time expresses something that is pretty well understood: when we read or hear other peoples’ stories, our world grows. We become different people.

For me, this is a powerful example of transformative storytelling. The philosophy behind that process is in the subtext, and not yet clearly articulated on its own.

Todd Babiak is another writer who speaks eloquently about narrative and how it effects people. He is himself a writer, but he has also started a company that reaches out to organizations, companies, and leaders to help them understand, craft, and retell their own stories. In a way, this is similar to successful brand-creating. But I think the way we approach that process is something much truer and organic to humanity. We have told stories in our poetry, in our photography, in our oral traditions, in our cave paintings.

Storytelling is, arguably, a biological imperative for homo sapiens.

Storytelling is about a relation of information. It is transformation and change, just at its most basic structural level. These are highly spiritual concepts that incorporate notions of the human soul, our capacity to reason and feel emotion, our relationship to the natural world, and possibly a higher power.

What I had trouble finding in contemporary media was how stories, and especially the specifics of language and style, have also advanced the ways we can conceptualize “the unknowable”.

It comes back to Plato’s Socrates, and the idea that things do not need to be seen and felt and held in the hand in order to be real. In our contemporary culture, we put such great stake into things that can be concretely shown and felt. Everything must be backed up by some research study or scientific experiment, and this has been the great standard of what can be talked about as “true” or “real”. At the same time, we all joke about how it seems like every other month, there’s some new study that disproves the one before it, and with the help of science, the Truth has again changed.

And there are some things that just can’t be proven.

In an introduction to a collection of poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, the writer and critic Christopher Maurer wrote,

“The reason, empowered by analogy, encounters what has not yet been named, and compares the known to the unknown, identifying or creating a new phenomenon. Metaphor, by its very inadequacy, by its provisional nature, by its inability to reach beyond the senses, somehow enhances that ‘otherness’, reminding us of all that the metaphor cannot capture. As in the thought of certain mystics, the lease inadequate image can imply the greatest reverence for the unknown. We are never more aware of the ineffable that when the description is most precise and elaborate”.

For me, this gets more deeply to what I want to study. If metaphor can paradoxically both illuminate and obscure “all that the metaphor cannot capture”, how else can stories push us to not only grow as individuals, but become more deeply connected to each other as members of the human community? How can stories challenge and shape our cultural notions of truth?