Stories to make sense of the world

 Above, the author reads Stories to make sense of the world.

We make sense of the world by continually spinning stories about it. Stories? They are not the kind you would necessarily tell someone. Unvoiced, they are very often little more than fragments but are generally in tune with a larger personal narrative. That overarching narrative may be composed of distinct parts which don’t need to be coherent with each other. It is as if we need to fit events into a coherent narrative, at least ‘locally’, if we don’t want to blow a mental fuse. We are comforted and strengthened by them. These everyday fragments can be so tiny and the making of them so natural, we are often unaware we are drafting them. This narrative sense-making may become abruptly apparent when our stories are at odds with those of others and conflict ensues. Here’s an example.

An old woman sits alone at the dining-room table, the breakfast things arranged neatly in front of her.  “Enjoy your meal,” her long-time companion says as he enters. Glancing at the table, he realizes she has already finished. “Too late,” he adds. Hasty words which don’t quite express what he wants to say. If he had had time to reflect, he would probably have explained his well-wishes arrived too late. “You didn’t make much effort to join me!” she replies testily. He storms off, angry.

When she speaks, her words do not follow from what went before. This sort of discontinuity is a sure sign something is amiss. Just as is an outburst of emotions that doesn’t fit the context.  This rupture, seen from the outside, appears incomprehensible. It reveals that she has quite a different story in mind. It sounds like it has to do with being neglected and the resulting hurt feelings that have been a long time in the making. While he, who was trying to be considerate, is left with a feeling of being misunderstood, unjustly cast in a role he is not currently playing. Of course, there is no guarantee that either of them will become aware that they are spinning stories about each other or that the ill-will between them might have its roots in that. The emotions sparked by the dissonance are generally so strong there is little room for distance or introspection and the opportunity for deeper learning is lost.

We often weave stories not just to make sense of what is happening in the present but also to predict the outcomes and act accordingly. In any given circumstance, there are many possibilities and the one that actually happens may not be what we imagined or what we wanted. Our misjudgement is often due to the influence of a personal narrative that is at odds with reality. Here’s an example.

A young student walks to the building site where he is doing a holiday job. Each day he passes a pretty girl his age waiting for a bus. She is alone at the stop. He has no idea who she is and knows nothing about her. She never looks his way and they do not exchange a single word. Despite this lack of communication, he frequently imagines going to the cinema with her, so much so, it seems a viable possibility. On his last day in the job, he plucks up the courage to talk to her. He is shy and ill at ease but he plants himself in front of her and clumsily invites her out. To his immense surprise, she clutches her bag to her chest and turns away aghast, refusing to reply.

Individuals’ overarching narratives may be little more than a direction, an orientation that colours every story. In the first example above, the woman is so convinced she is being neglected, no amount of solicitous behaviour could change her mind. In the second, the boy’s desire to befriend the girl and his belief in his self-worth, albeit shaky, left no place for the possibility she might be terrified at being accosted by a boy in filthy overalls in such a deserted spot. Rather like being stuck in a rut in the road, we find it hard to shift from an overriding narrative even when events dictate otherwise. In most cases, the result can be troubling but innocuous and might even offer a chance to close the gap between story and reality. Sometimes, however, it can be catastrophic. When the stories people tell themselves are persistently at odds with the world despite repeated warning signals, a line has been crossed and the storytelling has become pathological.

One of the underlying themes of my new novel, Stories People Tell, is the way people fabricate stories about the world around them and how those stories often miss the mark.