This I Believe

W - Knights Landing, California
Entered on February 13, 2007

I believe in stories

People say “You can’t believe everything you hear,” and it’s a fact: not everything you hear or read is true, and not all of it is even meant to be. But I believe that sometimes that kind of truth is beside the point. The real truth is what you can learn about a person, or a family, or a society based on what stories they choose to tell.

One afternoon, after hearing my grandmother tell about her adventures riding a stagecoach to San Jose to go to the Teacher’s College, my sister made the mistake of telling Nana that she loved it when she told her stories. It was an unfortunate choice of words. Nana was born in 1888, and when she was growing up, “telling stories” was a polite way of saying someone was lying. Indignant, Nana snapped, “That wasn’t a story! That really happened!” She was so sensitive about that, I kind of wondered how often she had been accused of telling stories over the years. Nana’s view, though, was that she was sharing a memorable experience; to my sister and I it was a tale about a time and place we could only imagine. Whether it was literally true didn’t matter to us—the important thing was the telling, what we could imagine, and that Nana shared it with us.

Nana died a few years later, but her stories live on. Funny ones like the crooked mouth family, touching stories about the Christmas flood of 1955, spooky stories about the ghosts that shared the big house where she grew up. Just like a personal story tells you something about what is important to that person, a family story gives an indication of what is important to that family. Without the stories, our ancestors are just names on a churchyard list, bones in a cemetary, sources of the genes that make all of my cousins look to some degree alike. With the stories, they are real people who did brave or important or silly things, and they teach us about life and about what it means to be a part of our family.

People of faith have argued for thousands of years about the literal truth of their creation stories. Folks argue today about whether Darwin’s theory of evolution is true. These people seem to see truth and lies, but what I see are stories: stories that people have put together to try and explain things that really puzzled them, drawing on all of the knowledge and understanding they had at their disposal. And the more continually puzzling the problem, the more powerful—and memorable—the story.

We all want to understand who we are, how we came to be, why we are the way we are. Stories help us understand. Sometimes we can’t agree on whether this or that story is true, but I believe that the most important part is that each of us be able to tell the stories that are most important to us.