We Owe Stories Our Lives, Literally

The western world has an unfortunate history of elevating the world of facts and hard numbers to the detriment of words.

They are frequently viewed as less deserving of attention but the reality is, we owe our lives to stories, the symphonies of words. Without the structure of “story” our brains would not be capable of making any more sense of the world than an animal’s.

From the moment of conception, humans are inclined to organize the world through the forms of stories.

We begin to cognitively distinguish between objects and events and subsequently combine them into small spatial stories. Many of these stories are basic, foundational pairings of an event and an object: A cat sits in the windowsill, a boy chases a ball, the mother talks to her child, tree branches sway in the breeze. We do this without ceasing throughout the day as we absorb and process our experiences and observations.

It might seem odd to focus on a process which we perform subconsciously. But this capacity is worth discussing for two primary reasons. First, this process is unique to humans; animals do not organize the world in stories. Second, these small spatial stories create a coherency we draw from in order to make sense of our personal experiences.

These subconsciously gathered micro-stories are the pixels that make up our lives.

In The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language, author Mark Turner writes,

“These small stories are what a human being has instead of chaotic experience. We know how they go. They are the knowledge that goes unnoticed but makes life possible. We do not need to worry about our movements or our interaction with the world because we have absolute confidence in these stories1.”

These small stories construct and organize our worlds; they allow us to forge order and meaning. We are not built to think exclusively in facts and statistics.

We owe stories our lives. Literally.

Parsing the world into small stories, each containing an actor or object and event, is ingrained in human biology. Turner remarks,

“There is a general story to human existence: It is the story of how we use story, projection, and parable to think, beginning at the level of small spatial stories”2.

Possessing an awareness of this general story of humanity enables us to connect with one another. Because we are wired for stories, we are empowered for connection.

The relationship between story and connection is self-perpetuating: As we acknowledge our need for connection, the relevance of storytelling slowly shifts back into focus as a means for furthering connection.

Words and stories are critical to establishing the auras of ordered meaning in our lives. Humanity is built on a foundation of words.

As the closing lines of Aldous Huxley’s collection of essays, Words and Their Meanings, declare,

“Words and the meanings of words are not matters merely for the academic amusement of linguists and logisticians, or for the aesthetic delight of poets; they are matters of the profoundest ethical significance to every human being.”

1 See Turner, p 13 for further study.
2 See Corballis, p 15: “Any universality may lie not so much in the language itself as in the common ways we parse the world….of course our parsing of the world into objects and actions in turn depends on our biological makeup.”