Stories are powerful. We make sense of things by creating a narrative. If there’s something beyond our ken, we tell a story about it to help it make sense. Sometimes that narrative survives the discovery of more information. It becomes a solid foundation for understanding, simply absorbing new details and becoming more sturdy. Sometimes it doesn’t, and we have to make up a new story instead of just revising the one we have.
Stories bring us closer together. They provide us with common ground. Even if I have never experienced what you have, your story can still reach out to me and touch me, pulling me into your story. From within your story, I can look around and see your point of view, and I react to your perspective. No matter my reaction to the story, it has connected us somehow. That connection is a bridge between us. That bridge can span generations, or miles, or the most difficult chasm of all – vastly different viewpoints.
When people meet, they tell each other stories about themselves. These stories help us make sense of each other. If a new acquaintance tells me the story of how she adopted her dog, I get a sense of her, in a way that a flat declaration cannot convey. Did she say, “I like dogs”? She didn’t have to, if she tells me that she adopted the old mutt from a shelter because the poor thing looked at her with love in his eyes and rested his chin on her knee. If a new friend tells me a wild story of being out on the town, I learn about him through that story. Maybe it’s simply what kind of drink he orders in a bar, but it might tell me a lot more than that. It may tell me how he interacts in a crowd, or how he treats his friends, depending on the story he tells.
The stories we tell ourselves are important. My life is not a series of dates, memorized by rote like a history assignment. I was born in 1975, I dropped out of school in 1993, I returned to school in 2012. What are my stories behind all those dates? I dropped out of school because I skipped class, a lot. Once I turned 18, the school washed its hands of me. I had better things to do than go to school– or at least things that sounded like more fun. Why did I return to school? I finally figured out how much I miss learning things, and to grow and stretch I needed to learn, first. The hows and whys matter, and those are the things that make up a good story. When I arrange my life into a narrative, looking at the how and why of my experiences, I start to understand myself better. I understand why I have a fear of commitment, why I love animals, and how I process new information. The story helped me get here, and it will help me get even further.
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