Why We All Need A Story
Without a narrative, how do you make your way through the trials and storms of life?
Our lives today generally don’t follow a grand narrative. Very few of us imagine ourselves as having a destiny or a fate. Nor do we understand our lives as part of something bigger than ourselves. For most people, nations, churches, and big organisations have lost their credibility.
Instead, we want the freedom to construct our own identities, and to alter that construction as we move through life – just as we create ‘personal brands’ on Facebook and Instagram.
The Burden of Freedom
One popular author today, the world-renowned Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, suggests ‘single stories’ are actually extremely dangerous, as great big stories create stultifying stereotypes.
There is surely an element of truth contained therein, especially as we remember some of the lurching myths of the totalitarian regimes of the last century. But I wonder if the opposite is not also equally true – that ‘many stories’ are also dangerous insofar as they create a fragmented and confusing reality for human beings.
French philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard, actually defined our era of postmodernism as one filled with incredulity ‘toward all meta-narratives’. By ‘meta-narratives’, he simply means ‘big stories’, that would describe a goal for people and history – such as the historical ‘enlightenment’ or the Christian hope in a universal ‘redemption’.
Now one can sympathise somewhat with these ideas. Who wants to be constricted into the structure of a story? Surely one must maintain one’s freedom at all costs?
But there’s a problem – this postmodernism, this distrust of big stories leads to a kind of consumerism in which the constant exercise of freedom becomes a heavy burden for so many people, leading to an upswing in neuroses, anxiety, and despair – because it is simply too damn hard to try to make sense of every strange thing in the universe all by yourself.
Stories and Trauma
There is a reason every culture told itself stories, and passed them on authoritatively to their young. There is a reason groups like the AA obsess with telling personal stories – which end in yielding to ‘the God of their understanding’.
The only way to make sense of being itself is to understand your world as an arena in which you move from A to B, in which you have a goal or a path, and in which you are not alone.
This sense of a life path creates a kind of resilience which allows you to absorb and use the mysteries of life which lie just outside of your ability to cope.
Because in life, you’re never truly in the passenger seat.
The reason things have been so quiet on this blog for the past few weeks is that last month I was involved in a bus accident which resulted in the tragic death of a bright and promising young man, a handful of serious injuries for some other passengers, and a snapped left arm for me.
One moment we are sitting on a bus, chatting on our way to a schoolboy soccer fixture. In seconds everything changed, seemingly as a result of a random accident.
Our bus toppled over and so did our lives.
How do you make sense of such a thing? How do you just carry on in a world where at any second, everything might just be turned completely upside down?
There are no easy or glib answers here.
But if we have no sense for the darkness and pain of everyday life, no sense of a preparation for death, then we simply cannot ever make sense of life’s tragedies. In short, we require a story that offers us a path through the traumas of life.
In the old days, myth, and then religion, offered this path. The cross, the sea, the cave, the tomb, the belly of the beast – these archetypes gave structure to one’s own path.
Even the rationalist philosophers of Ancient Greece considered their Academy a sacred apprenticeship towards preparing for death – by the improvement of one’s soul in the contemplation of an eternal and infinite good.
This, I think, is one of the reasons I was drawn toward becoming an English teacher.
In English, we grapple with stories – and stories are always about characters with aims and goals. And by reading these stories, we can get to grips with our own aims and goals, and work out what they are and what they should be. This is really what ‘imagination’ is.
And imagination always leads to a kind of faith about what the world is, about the nature of the meta-story. This is the case because we don’t experience reality the way we think we do – we can’t experience sub-atomic particles, or any kind of matter. We can only experience the world as a kind of journey through being.
So what’s the point of all this?
I’m stretching to say something which is almost unsayable, but I will try anyway:
In the midst of the chaos and pain of life, if we forego the opportunity to make sense of the world, and then aim for that sense in our choices, we will just sink into nihilism – a belief in nothingness, with nothing left to do in this world but gain short-term, selfish pleasure. To a large extent, our culture has already chosen this path.
The problem is when we have this story of nothingness, when pain happens to us, we have no resilience, no north star to put us on track – because we believe ourselves to live in a trackless world. So maybe we take drugs rather than try to achieve anything; maybe we play video games all day; maybe we just flood our lives with career details.
But that’s no way to live.
Instead we have to make choices – about what is good, true, and beautiful. We still need big stories. Within these stories, we can then keep turning the pages of or lives towards our goals, trying to work constantly towards a degree of order among the chaos and darkness all around us.
In the words of my literary mentor, GK Chesterton, life is a miserable truce but a happy fight. And life only makes sense in this fight.
There’s a haunting verse right at the beginning of the Bible. Immediately after the first verse, in which God creates the heavens and the earth, we read this:
‘Now the earth became formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep…’
That’s a perennial truth, one which we will all find in our own lives at some point, but then we need to choose to actualise the second part of the verse:
‘… and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’
From there, God speaks words which bring life and order and goodness into the world of chaos. Let there be light. And that’s a story you can live by.