Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living. — On Stories, Richard Kearney
To be a person is to have a story to tell. — Isak Dinesen
Once the necessities for survival are taken care of, we humans spend more of our free time immersed in story than doing anything else. Stories about things that aren’t true and people that don’t exist, for the most part. Think about it. We watch movies and television; play video games; read books, comics and cartoons; listen to songs; look at art; see performances of plays, dance and operas; and tell each other stories around the dinner table or the campfire. And we have always done this, since we learned to communicate with one another and figured out how to scratch drawings on a cave wall.
Stories are such a huge part of our lives that we must be hard-wired not only to love them, but to absolutely need them. One of the most meaningful and enjoyable aspects of my life is the time I spend with stories, primarily in novel form, reading about events and people that someone else has simply made up. And I can’t really imagine a life worth living without them.
But why are stories so important to us? I don’t think there is any one reason. It seems to me that stories are so necessary because they serve so many critical functions that enable us to survive and thrive as humans, all at once.
First of all, what is a story exactly? It’s as simple as the anecdote you tell your spouse at dinner about the jerk at work and what he did, or the lurid events relayed on the local news. There’s a reason we refer to both of these as “stories.” A story is essentially a series of events on a particular subject related by a person to an audience.
The first function of stories, I think, is to escape the humdrum, routine nature of life. Life, we hope, is long, and often quite a lot of time passes between significant events happening. During that time, we do the dishes, brush our teeth, go to work — all of which is not that interesting. A story collapses these events, leaving out the boring bits. Through story, we can pretend to be somebody else or go somewhere else, without taking on the risks or expense ourselves. We can even do the impossible, like travel through time or explore the universe. Kids play pretend from a very young age, and through various kinds of stories, we never really stop.
This escape factor makes stories highly entertaining. They pass the time. They’re fun. The fun factor enables stories to fulfill their other functions. One of the most basic functions of the story is to teach. We use stories to quickly and easily learn facts; research shows that we retain facts more readily if they are related in narrative form. But stories also teach us how to be.
Human cultures have always reinforced societal norms via storytelling. Through stories we communicate to our children (and to outsiders) how to act toward one another, what we value and what is possible. Stories preserve our own history and culture, passing it along in a form that’s easy to remember to the next generation.
We use stories not only to learn but also to speculative, to pose questions and then find solutions. What would happen if we made contact with an alien race? Stories help us explore all the possibilities. What would be the consequences of cheating on your spouse? Stories help us understand that hypothetical situation as well. When we tell stories about ourselves, we are imagining all our possible futures and, we hope, helping ourselves choose the best ones.
Beyond just speculation about what might happen, we use stories to answer the great unanswerable questions. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? What does it mean to be human? Stories bring order and meaning to the chaos and randomness of life. A story always has a beginning, middle and end, which is very satisfying to us, since we don’t know how our own personal story will end. And our lives are really a search for our own story, aren’t they?
Finally, stories connect us to one another. Even though we know they are fiction, stories elicit powerful emotional responses in us. While we are immersed in a story, we can see the world through someone else’s eyes. We can know what it’s like to be a poor boy in Delhi or a slave girl in 1700s Virginia or the Queen of England. Sharing our subjective experiences through stories enable us to connect and empathize with one another. By sharing through stories, we are better able to live together.
Because stories can elicit powerful emotional responses, they are powerful tools. They can be used to persuade people and change societies, and they have — with good and bad results. That’s why criticism of stories is essential as well. Our endless discussion of stories — on the Internet, around the water cooler, in other stories — is really an intrinsic part of the storytelling process, as essential as the stories themselves. We should always distrust those who try to suppress our stories — any of them — or our discussion of those stories.
What would happen if we encountered an alien race that did not tell stories, that didn’t even understand what stories were? Would we be able to communicate with them, or relate to them? Hmm, perhaps someone should write a story about that (if they haven’t already).