I write a lot about stories. This may seem like some weird fixation, but it has more to do with the way I view the world. In one way or another, most human activities are a form of storytelling. Stories help us to understand the world around us, and our place in it.
The similarity between the words history and story is pretty obvious, but the linguistic connection goes much deeper. Both history and story are ultimately derived from the Latin word historia, itself a loanword from Greek. In Latin, Historia could be used to refer to both factual accounts of the past and fictional narratives. This passed into French as estorie, and from there it passed into Middle English in the 14th century. There wasn’t a clear distinction between history and story in English until over a century later.
Rather than being an entirely separate discipline, history is largely a form of storytelling, one that attempt to accurately convey the truth about the past. Some of the most valuable information we have about the past is from what people wrote down, i.e. the stories they told. Some of these documents are court records and royal decrees, but even the fiction of the past offers a wealth of information about the ideas and practices of the societies that produced them. History is really about telling or encountering stories to figure out what happened in the past and how it has influenced the world.
While holy books primarily exist to teach and instruct people about a particular religion, many of them are narrative based. Rather than laying out the basic tenets of the faith concisely, as a Wikipedia article might do, they typically embed their teachings in stories. Even in religions without a clear canon of literature, there are significant stories that form the backbone of adherents’ beliefs.
Storytelling is a key component of religious teaching. In Jewish Rabbinical tradition, there is a type of story called midrash, which speculatively expanded upon the Hebrew scriptures. Midrash wasn’t considered the authoritative interpretation of scripture, but rather a method to offer differing interpretations of ambiguous stories. Each Rabbi could approach the same story, like the creation of Adam and Eve or the Exodus, and write their own midrash to express their perspective of the original story. Storytelling is also very significant in the Christian gospels, which contain both narratives about Jesus and the parables of Jesus. In fact, most of Jesus’ teachings in the gospels are told through parables, rather than sermons.
The present election season in America, like most others, is all about narrative. It’s not enough to say that unemployment is bad, or that ISIS is dangerous, because people aren’t compelled by statements of the obvious. The public doesn’t need to be told what problems they face, because they have to deal with those problems every day. The politician need only identify what problems people are most concerned, and then decide what caused those problems, what will happen if our problems go unchecked, and how to solve the problem. Bonus points if they can tell us how bad the country will get if we vote for their opponent.
In basic storytelling terms, Act 1 establishes a problem, Act 2 shows the consequences of that problem, and Act 3 resolves the problem. Cause, effect, solution. This is exactly what politicians do whenever they want to win an election. Ultimately, whichever narrative resonates with the most people determines who is elected. Just like storytelling, it helps to come up with an antagonist. For Bernie Sanders, this was the “one-percenters,” for Trump it’s been immigrants and anyone he perceives to be politically correct, judging by Clinton’s recent comments, it seems to be anyone she perceives to be bigoted in her case. Humans are predisposed towards looking for stories, and it’s a candidate’s job to try to make themselves the protagonist of the story that people perceive in the affairs of the their nation.
As much as storytelling shapes the world around us, it is ultimately in our own minds. We like to think of our memories as an objective record of our past, but our memories can change quite easily. Take deja vu, for instance, a feeling that most people have experienced. In a theory put forward by Robert Efron, deja vu is caused when the brain incorrectly categorizes a present experience as a memory, something he called Dual Processing. You feel as though you’re remembering something even as you experiencing it, creating a bizarre sensation. Memories can be altered in other ways, sometimes simply by being revisited. Replaying an event repeatedly in your head actually makes it less accurate, meaning that some of your most vivid memories are probably somewhat embellished. There’s a fantastic Batman-themed video about this phenomenon that you can find here.
As much as we’re inclined to trust them, memories don’t necessarily give us an accurate image of our past. Memories are really just stories we tell ourselves to make sense of who we are. They’re not a perfect source of information, but we need them to develop an identity, a sense of continuity with our past selves. Stories define who we are and how we understand ourselves, which makes them one of the most important parts of our lives.
There are plenty of other ways stories shape our lives. Court cases are essentially storytelling contests, and the judge or jury decides which is most convincing. We only know about places we’ve never been to because we’ve been told about them. When you first learned to read, I’ll bet it was through picture books. It’s not so easy to separate real life from stories, once you realize that stories have given you just about everything you have.