The Power of Narratives

We are a storytelling species. It’s how we make sense of the world. It’s how we share our experiences with each other, which is how we bond, stay together and evolve together. As far as our experience of reality is concerned, unless we can turn it into a story we can not really say we have experienced it in a meaningful way. If a tree falls in the woods it probably always makes a sound, even when there’s nobody there to hear it come down. But without a human being there to witness it, experience it and turn it into a tall tale to share about a giant crashing to the ground and the impression that made on the observer, the tree might as well have gone down in silence. The medium carrying the fall’s physical sound is the air, the medium carrying its metaphysical sound is the narrative – and as far as humans are concerned that metaphysical sound is all that matters.

Narratives help us categorise and order reality to make it comprehensible and manageable for us. We use stories to assign significance to what would otherwise be random events. But narratives are not static. They do not just describe and categorise their content: they bring their content to life by including movement and momentum. Our stories mimic our experiences by operating in time: they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories capture and inform the reality we experience by adding a sense of direction: an intentionality of movement that imbues our journey from beginning to end with a deeply felt significance.

To have any direction at all, stories must contain action; they must be about things happening and – to give it human significance – things being done either to make those things happen or in response to them happening. From a narrative perspective we are all much more living doings than living beings. We are much more a process than a thing. Our nature is defined by movement, transformation and progression: from birth to death, from food to tissues and energy, from desire to action, from fear to flight or fight, it’s the processes far more than the objects that form the essence of our lives.

All this living doing is both circular and progressive: circular in that life comes and goes in many interconnected cycles; progressive in that – at least in our human perception – it seems to have a direction, goals and purpose that makes it move forwards and outwards rather than just around and around. The cycles repeat, but are never quite the same the next time around. Life evolves, species come and go, life becomes more complex, more intricate, simple forms combine to form larger ones… It is not just that we observe direction and progression in the world around us. We impose it on that world in our need to give it structure and meaning. Life would be unthinkable and unbearable for us if it had no direction. We need a sense of purpose and goals – something that drives us forward and things to aim for – and a sense we are actually moving in the right direction. We can endure almost any hardship on our journey as long as that journey is taking us somewhere. A journey that is not moving towards some goal or destination is not even a journey: it’s an aimless wandering in an endless wasteland with no sense of progress to measure our movements by.

That’s why our stories are crucial to us. They impart the world around us with order, intentionality, purpose and agency. Our stories allow us to make sense of the world, even if that sense is just a figment of our own imagination. We ‘make’ sense rather than ‘find’ it: it is a construct of the human mind, not something pre-existing waiting to be discovered by us. And as we make sense by creating stories, our stories energise us by giving us the will to continue our journey and keep moving forward.

Narratives help us navigate a complex world - (c)Bard 2015
Narratives help us navigate a complex world – (c)Bard 2015

In order to improve ourselves we need a sense of direction: we need to have something to move towards, something that compels us forward and makes it possible to turn mere busy-ness into an actual journey, with a start, milestones, progress and ultimately a destination. Since we are (largely) the authors of our own stories, it could be argued that the actual direction we journey in doesn’t really matter – it’s all a fiction anyway. For the purpose of self-improvement, however, and for living an empowered and fulfilling life the direction we travel in does matter and requires thoughtful consideration. The power to choose our own direction, walk our own path and write our own story is at the core of our human condition: we may not have the power to change the conditions in which we are living but we do have the power to live through those conditions in the way we decide for ourselves. Exercising that power is what makes us active agents rather than passive objects in the currents of the river of life.

I am not suggesting that simply by creating our own story and direction we are in any way guaranteed to reach the goals we set ourselves or come even close to fulfilling our chosen purpose. But by not crafting our own narrative we do not have any goals to aim for and even if we should accidentally and unintentionally some outcome, it would never feel like our own purpose and lack the sense of fulfilment that comes from a journey chosen ourselves and travelled voluntarily, with the commitment of our own volition to keep us going.

That is the power of narratives: to make us feel we are on a journey that is taking us somewhere, rather than being thrown around by random forces without any sense of direction or progress. Narratives encapsulate the human powers of sense-making and intentionality. The world may be chaotic, bewildering and ultimately indifferent to our plights, but our personal and collective narratives turn the chaos into orderly structures, turn bewilderment into meaning and enlightenment, and refute the Universe’s indifference by empathically stating that our lives matter because we choose to make them matter.

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