Stories – why do we tell them?

To be human is to be compelled to try to understand, connect with, and assign meaning to everything around us. As a species we are constantly seeking affirmation, particularly in this modern world with its increasing levels of anxiety, reflected in the gloss of the multiple screens we blinker ourselves with and the curated images, or stories, that our peers and the media are incessantly live-feeding to us.

Cultural voyeurism and competitive narcissism aside, the root desire to affirm ourselves, or that our lives have meaning, comes from a much deeper, burrowed-down place where we can find our very basic and primal survival instincts resting, nervous but bright-eyed and fully alert.

Like any animal, predator or prey, our primary goal and first reflex is survival and safety. Firstly for ourselves and secondly for our loved ones, peers or pack. If the cabin loses pressure, the oxygen masks will drop… please put on your own mask before helping children or others. We must survive to help others survive, so we must take care of number one first. Incidentally, this is perhaps also why self-sacrifice works to move us in any action film or why martyrdom grips us in the religious epic, but I digress. The point is, we’re innately selfish and we have good reason to be. As they say, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there…

Imagine yourself a lone wolf stumbling upon a new pack after losing yours. You have one goal: survive. In order to do this you might need to defend yourself, in case they reject you and attack, but ultimately it would be best if they accepted you and allowed you to join them as you know that your chances of survival are increased if you’re not alone. They’ll help you hunt food and take the night watch. It’s strategic, but it’s also ultimately beneficial to your happiness because after our basic survival needs are met, the next thing we’re programmed to seek is belonging.

To feel as though we belong we usually need to be amongst others like ourselves or at least find some common ground to stand with them on, ground that won’t shake or shift too far beneath our feet. To do this we must communicate and to communicate we must share our perspectives and take in theirs. In doing so, we begin to deconstruct these ‘others’ and the wider world around us so that consequently we find meaning and we begin to feel not only safe but secure.

Even with safety in tact, the world without security, order or belonging is overwhelming and scary, therefore, we have an innate desire to assimilate what we can of it. There will always be grand and lofty unanswered questions, but it is part of our humanity to at least attempt some of them and gather purpose for ourselves. If we are scientists, we might try to deduce how we got here. If we are philosophers, we might explore why we got here. If we are artists, we might muse on such questions by simulating our experiences.

Storytelling, like all form of art, is communication through our attempts to decipher the world; it is a tool in the process of comprehension and most importantly, connection. Art is a form of expression to help us to digest what we observe and feel, and mould it into something real and tangible that we can share. We get security from finding ourselves reflected in the eyes of others, so long as their eyes portray understanding or acceptance, and further safety still if we find that we’re happy to belong in that reflection. It is the thrill we receive from the challenge of this, which makes story such a rewarding, powerful and worthwhile tool.

Stories may frequently be consumed as entertainment or escapism but they have a far deeper purpose and they permeate us farther than we realise. Narrative dominates our lives. Sure, it is in the drama you watched or read before bed, but it is also in how you dressed this morning, in the political campaign you drank with your coffee, in what you decided to share on your social media and in how you presented yourself to your boss. Storytelling is an important and inescapable construct in our everyday lives for it pierces all of our communication. Why do we tell them? Quite simply, because we can’t help ourselves.


Words (c) Rebecca Innes 2017
Image (c) Ashley Carlton, Mercury Press

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