On the Subject of Storytelling


If I point up, I may mean, “Sky.” I may be trying to wipe away the clouds to show you the moon and stars. I may be trying to explain our Place in the Universe. I may be trying to say, “Heaven”. I may be trying to usher you into a paradise place of mythical wonders, Gods Greek and otherwise.

But you may see me point up and think, “Overpass?”

How can we be sure? Each of us is trapped, a lump of gray goop inside a fish bowl of bone. We experience the world imperfectly at best. We peer through glasses, listen with hearing aids, touch through bulky clothes and taste and smell despite allergies. We can’t upload our thoughts to the Internet (at least not yet) and communication via Vulcan Mind Meld is a galaxy away. So, how can we be sure? The answer is: we can’t be sure.

We speak in metaphor, assigning words to pin down persons, places, and things. We capture actions as verbs and experiences through myriad flavors of descriptors. We fill dictionaries with words and define those words with yet more words. And – despite all of this – a metaphor is not perfect. If I point up and say to you, “Sky,” I may be sharing a vision of crystal blue and golden sun. You may hear, “Sky,” and cower before an imminent storm.

So we tell each other stories. Each is full of context and connotation. We tell our stories to come together, or to separate ourselves out as human beings, as countrymen, neighbors, members of a religion, fans of a sports team. We tell stories to share love. We tell stories to rally and kill. We tell stores full of empirical facts, to prove Truths are self-evident. We tell stories where we are the heroes, never in doubt, never wrong. We tell stories to feel better about ourselves. We tell stories to make a point. We tell stories because we believe there are some things more “truthful” than Truth.

We tell each other a thousand stories a day. Some last only an instant or two, forgotten as soon as they’re done. How was your day? How are you feeling? Let me tell you. Some stories last years. They are told over and over again. Remember that time? I’ll never forget. Let me tell you. Some stories are immobilized in clay tablets, frozen in text. Some stories evolve into tall tales that stride the earth and sea. Some race at the speed of light and fly off into space. Once upon a time. Did you hear the one about? Let me tell you.

We speak in stories because they are a perfect viral vector, spreaders that cannot be innoculated against. We speak in stories though stories are not perfect because we are not perfect. We speak in stories because we have evolved to become a species of storytellers. We are each so alone and apart and we wish to share with one another. If I point up, I may mean, “Sky.” Or I may be asking for an invitation to come closer to you.

What do you mean? Why are you pointing up?

Let me tell you.

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