This essay is based on episode 33 of The Here and Now Podcast originally released on 8 July, 2020 which can be found here:
From Te Kore (the great void where nothing existed) and Te Pō (the perpetual night of darkness) comes the Māori story of creation. In this darkness, imprisoned between their parents who were locked in a never-ending embrace, lived the children of the gods – Ranginui ‘Sky Father’ and Papatuanuku ‘Earth Mother’.
The love between Ranginui and Papatuanuku was so immense that they could not bear to be apart. Yet, by clinging to each other, the parents were also keeping their six children from the light.
That was until one day when, as Ranginui stirred, a single beam of light shone from Papatuanuku’s armpit onto her children. Amazed by this radiance, the children yearned to free themselves and enter the world of light.
So the children began to work on breaking the embrace that had kept their universe dark for so long. But their parents’ love was strong and their efforts were fruitless.
Then the mighty Tāne Mahuta (god of the forest) lay on his back and dug his shoulders deep into his mother’s body. With his legs, Tāne pushed against his father and, with all the strength he could summon, attempted to let light into the world.
Ignoring his mother’s cries to stop, Tāne pushed even harder and the bond between his parents began to tear. Drawing on his very last reserves, Tāne fully extended his powerful legs, forcing Ranginui to the heavens and flooding the world with bright light.
Today, when Ranginui’s tears fall from the sky as rain onto his beloved Papatuanuku, it is a reminder of his grief and longing for her. Papatuanuku’s pain is visible in the red ochre clays of the earth, still stained by the blood drawn during the separation.
This is a legend of creation told by the Māori people of New Zealand and retold here by Tourism New Zealand. It has been passed down through generation after generation, retaining its tragedy and simplicity, the birth of the world, and of people.
Maori mythology predates written language. Stories were passed down through generations. Experts in the legends were known as tohunga and they specialised in a variety of disciplines from foretelling the future to wood carving or building canoes, or waka. Tohunga were revered in their communities for their gifts which often included to ability to carefully retell ancient myths and legends from the spiritual realm through prayer, poetry and song. They learned their craft from the tohunga that came before them, and they too would pass on the skills of their trade to the next generation of gifted artisans and charismatic figures of the tribe.
A central element of the retelling of stories was a focus on whakapapa, or genealogy, as this gave a temporal scale to historic events, both those of a grand, mythical scale, and those in more recent living memory. Stories connected the people with their past, their mythological hero’s and gave them a place in a contiguous narrative.
From these stories came not only reflection on the past and appreciation for lineage, but cultural identity itself as beliefs, norms and values were forged through the legends passed down through generations. Dictates of life and death, the land, and the spirit were personified in legends which held sacred significance to the people. Much as we follow ideologies and belief structures today, whether religious, conceptual or institutional, we too pass on stories which we use to construct a world which, as far as the universe is concerned, is entirely fictional and anthropocentric.
Myths, legends and stories are fundamental to homo sapiens, humans, as a social species that has survived for millennia in harsh climates and against the persistent threat of animals more powerful and adapted for survival than we are. Homo sapiens was not stronger, faster, larger, more vicious or nimble, no, the adaptation that allowed homo sapiens to survive and grow to dominate all other living creatures, was the mind and its ability to form complex narratives linking the past, present and future.
This essay is about the importance of stories, both at the macro scale, in terms of the origins of humanity as a social animal, and at micro scale, the self narrative of the individual, the “you” that emerges from the clatter and noise of life. Somehow, despite the enormity of the universe, of the planet Earth, and of the continual reminder of nature and circumstance of our powerlessness, we remain defiant, emboldened to stand up to the odds stacked against us. Our resilience, our will, our sense of belonging, of community and of identity comes from the stories we tell. Indian film director Shekar Kapur says, “we are the stories we tell ourselves.” Stories make us who we are.
We tend to think of stories as words on pages, but this is a relatively recent development. For the majority of human history, stories have existed only in the minds of their tellers. The dream stories of the Aboriginal people of Australia or the towering Volcano that was to become a lake told by the Klamath people of North America many thousands of years ago are common examples of oral histories passed down through generations, yet story telling goes back much even further to the cave paintings of Indonesia, France and Spain which have been dated as some 30, 40 or even 60,000 years old.
It is almost impossible to imagine the life of those ancient painters, what messages are they sending us from the distant past? But we are related, even after all this time, by our shared love of stories. Stories serve to literally construct the world that we inhabit. They tell us who we are, where we have come from and how we should act. They teach us right from wrong, tell us who we should love and respect, and who should be our enemies. Stories tell us how we should conduct ourselves in every facet of life from the most mundane of tasks, to the most scared. Stories are a universal language of culture and in many ways the essence of what it means to be human. Jordan Peterson in his own epic Maps of meaning says “our very cultures are erected upon the foundation of a single great story: paradise, encounter with chaos, fall and redemption.”
Have you ever watched a memory expert recite the order of a pack of cards? A technique they might use is to create a story with every item they must memorise. They might visualise a place they know well, say their home, and tell the story of getting home. They walk in the door and there is the queen of hearts, they put their keys on the side table and there is the 10 of clubs, they hang up their coat, and see the six of diamonds, and so on and so on. They tell themselves a story, attaching each item to be remembered to another aspect of a story they know well. A truly remarkable feat of memory is routinely performed by Akria Haraguchi, a retired Japanese engineer who recited Pi to 100,000 decimal places in 2006, the unofficial world record. Haraguchi developed a method of assigning kana symbols, the system of Japanese writing, to the numbers allowing him to recall Pi as a collection of stories. That’s a lot of stories.
The act of forming a narrative through story telling helps to retain information and is a useful memorisation tool. Memory experts know this well, they also know that we all use stories as a way of mapping out reality. In fact, our brains are optimised to remember information this way through so-called, episodic memory. Our episodic memory isn’t particularly accurate however, as any police detective will attest, but the issue is not that we don’t want to remember things accurately. It’s that our brain creates a version of reality which fits in with our assumptions and biases and connects the small sliver of information that it actually perceives from the flood of sensory, cognitive, and emotional stimuli it is constantly bombarded by as we go about our lives.
The stories we tell ourselves form a cognitive behavioural repertoire that tells us how to act to maximise our “positive emotional salience.” This process begins in the right hemisphere of the brain, the imaginative, creative side, which has the ability to decode non-linguistic speech and language and to understand imagery, symbols and metaphor. The left hemisphere completes the story by forming it into a logical structure that exists with temporal continuity, consistency, and coding for expression through speech. Our stories are formed in our imagination, and then converted into something orderly that can be conveyed externally. But, something gets lost in this process. We can’t convert and rationalise all that goes on in the right brain, our imagination is a world of dreams which we can never fully understand let alone communicate. Our stories are therefore only a representation, never quite reaching the truth. We remain condemned to reside within ourselves, living two narratives that we can never quite reconcile.
But our brains get pretty close, most of the time. This is seen in the social development of children who can understand and obey the laws of social interaction long before they can articulate them from abstraction and provide the reasons why they must behave in certain ways. Stories are codified as heuristics, or mental shortcuts, that govern how we see the world and act within it. They form and shape our unique ontology, or world view, upon which we build our cultural and perceptual structures. We are indoctrinated into conceptualising reality into stories from a very early age. We reduce most of the things we do in life to mini epics. The story of how to brush our teeth, or how to get ready for school, and we can add many layers of increasing complexity until we have a complete story of who we are.
Our story isa saga of tragedy and triumph, of good fortune and curses, pain and joy. Each chapter takes on meaning in our lives, which we mould and shape over the years, adjusting our views as they soften and solidify with each retelling, or map onto our perceptions of who we are and who we want to be. This has nothing to do with reality because more important for our stories is authenticity. Their lack of accuracy does nothing to diminish their value, because they are our stories alone.
The self-narratives we develop are a psychological mechanism through which we become who we are, an individual, experiencing things, doing things and finding meaning and purpose. Perhaps this process serves an evolutionary purpose important to survival, and this is particularly so for gifted story tellers. Researchers of the tribal Agta people in the Philippines, for instance, found storytellers had more children and were among the most respected people in their communities, more so than hunters, fishermen or foragers.
But, perhaps story telling is necessary only for us to stick around long enough to continue to survive, because through stories we can ascribe meaning and purpose to our lives which can make suffering through hard times seem worthwhile. We know instinct alone is more than capable of ensuring we fulfil our physiological needs, we are surrounded by creatures of the animal kingdom which act in precisely this way. So the higher evolutionary purpose of stories, and the self-narrative is something else, it both keeps us alive and it keeps us together.
Stories make us empathetic, when it is a good one, we can’t help but put our self in the shoes of the teller. We are enthralled by fiction novels and movies because we see ourselves in the characters, we feel their pain, we cry their tears and exult in their joy. We live their stories as they live theirs, and we can’t wait to share the journey with others. “Did you see the new film? Oh, it’s amazing,” “I’ve just read the most wonderful book, the story was so unique” we tell our friends, but the truth is, it probably wasn’t.
Christopher Booker claims there are only seven basic plots in his lengthy tome, “The seven basic plots – why we tell stories.” These are repeated over and over in film, television, and novels with just slight tweaks. The seven plots are “overcoming the monster” as plot seen in tales like Beowulf or Independence Day; the “rags to riches” plot with the well-known plot of Cinderella or the narrative of Daenerys Targaryen in Game of thrones. Then there’s “the quest” plot which could be as trivial as The Hangover or as epic as The Lord of the Rings; The next is the plot of “voyage and return” common in many fairy tales and children’s stories such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or C.S Lewis’s ‘The Lion the witch and the wardrobe. There are also plots of “rebirth” like Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the beast; and finally the plot of “comedy” which often ends in marriage and Shakespeare’s favourite, the “tragedy” which often ends in death.
It is hard to believe that all stories can be reduced to these seven basic plot lines. Indeed, many interweave multiple plots within them so we may be kept on our escapist toes, however this is not revolutionary knowledge. Authors know these plots well and simply map out the arcs of their characters according to the broad schema established many millennia ago around camp fires, in stone houses, and the caves and castles of old. As we have seen, the question is not then why do we tell stories? But why are they so important to us? Booker explains:
“When an acorn falls onto the ground, it contains all the genetic information it needs to grow up into a perfect, fully developed oak tree. When a human baby is born, it contains all the genetic programming it needs to develop physically into a fully grown man or woman. What it does not have is the instinctive programming to ensure that it will eventually grow up psychologically into a fully mature human being. It is precisely this lack for which the archetypal patterns which underlie storytelling have emerged through evolution to compensate.”
So, according to Booker, stories teach us who we are and how to behave in the world. We have the genetic programming, the nature, to become adults, but our cultural and psychological programming needs nurture, and this comes through stories. But while our inner stories are seemingly reducible to these basic plots, economist Tyler Cowen says we should be wary of thinking of our lives in such simplistic terms. More realistically, our lives are messy, disordered and incomplete but we are drawn to finding meaning through stories because it is the way in which we understand our own world and the worlds of others.
How we interpret the meaning of those stories and use them as a gateway for accessing reality is far more nuanced and individual. Stories reveal something of the inner world of the teller and their ontology. We are all the hero of our own saga, yet the battles we fight, who we fight them against, and whether we triumph or fail varies largely according to our personality.
We all know the cup half full, half empty cliché which proffers insight into the optimism or pessimism of an individual. How we frame ourselves within our stories says a lot about our psychological capital, the innate level of hope, optimism, resilience and self-efficacy we all have. We may slay great dragons on our quests through life, like how we triumphed over the frustratingly pedantic clerk at the transport department, or be served a great injustice by a queue jumper at the post office. We don’t often see our lives in this narrative way, and perhaps trivial matters such as this are not relevant, however it is the longer running sagas that characterise our lives that give more colour and shape to our sense of self, our purpose and the journey we are on. How we cope with grief, setbacks and failure is nested with how we frame ourselves within the narrative of our lives. But it is not a constant, it evolves over time. Some things take on new meanings, others lose their meaning when they have run their course. Identifying those narratives that hold us back and keep us mired in negativity and victimhood can free us to continue on our journey and reframe our narrative to one that is formative, where we slay the dragon, rather than become consumed by its fire.
But it is crucial that we identify those stories we tell which are misleading or may be holding us back. Therapist Lori Gottlieb says:
“All of us walk around with stories about our lives. Why choices were made, why things went wrong, why we treated someone a certain way, why they treated us a certain way. Stories are the way we make sense of our lives. But what happens when the stories we tell are misleading or incomplete or just wrong? Well, instead of providing clarity, these stories keep us stuck. We assume that our circumstances shape our stories. But what I found time and again in my work is that the exact opposite happens. The way we narrate our lives shapes what they become. That’s the danger of our stories, because they can really mess us up, but it’s also their power.”
There is such power and value in understanding the macro level narrative that it is tool used to help those suffering from post-traumatic stress known as narrative exposure therapy. When we experience trauma, whether from the loss of a loved one, of being the victim of a crime or accident, or witnessing a traumatic event, we can become overwhelmed by its magnitude. Trauma can take over our lives. Traumatic events are so powerful that they reduce virtually everything else to triviality. They don’t fit with the path through life we were on and the future we envisioned. Those suffering PTSD may be constantly reminded of the event, fearful of experiencing something similar again, and retreat further into themselves and from society as they try to escape their fears and the shame they may feel as a result. They become trapped in a cycle of re-experiencing the trauma and it consumes their life so that the past self and a potential self of the future are lost, sometimes forever.
A treatment that may be useful for some people is to try to reconcile the traumatic events into a wider narrative. The event is not seen as a catastrophic episode which destroyed the pre-trauma person and their hope of a future, it is reframed as something that happened, and something that can and must be moved passed. The individual learns to accept that the trauma is part of their story, but it is not the end of the story, nor is it all of the story. By working with our psychology to map reality onto a plot line which we can identify ourselves within, we can take advantage of the evolutionary drive to tell stories and be characters in our own narratives, and escape the vicious cycle of post-traumatic stress.
How do people dramatize the close calls and near death experiences that sometimes occur? “In our last gasp, when we think our time is over, we come back to our narrative, the long and convoluted history of us reduced to a series of flashes before our eyes. It is not a long chain of connected events influenced and nudged by experiences that come is sizes small, medium and large, it is a series of snapshots, turning points, moments that define us, or that we define ourselves by. But our lives are much richer, and full of detail and messiness which contributes as much, if not more, to who we are, than the major events which we may recount in our telling of our personal stories. In fairness, we can’t keep track let alone understand the many subtle influences of life, that gently nudge us along. Yet, they are there. We would do well to step back and acknowledge the present, and remember that our narrative, the story of who we are, is not one of seven plot lines, but a long running drama.
Some myths and legends are passed down through generations remaining largely the same. But each life of ours is rich, varied and unique, and our story will never quite be captured in its entirety and it definitely will never be told again. So, be the hero in your story, but turn each page slowly, read every word and don’t stop until every dragon has been slayed.