Your Life Isn’t a Story

In 1944 a group of psychologists made an animation consisting of geometric shapes and showed it to people who overwhelmingly (and consistently, with corroboration) imbued it with all kinds of story-telling elements (protagonists and antagonists, plot, drama, suspense, etc.). You can watch the animation for yourself—and read an article about the study—here. Best line from the article: “There is no better illustration of the pitfalls of a good story than economics.”

Most people probably think of their own lives as stories (we even have “chapters”), perhaps in part because even the worst stories have coherence, while even the best stories have simplicity. Even defenders of religious texts point out that their great asset resides in their didactic and compelling stories. How else could a deity communicate?

I don’t think there’s much danger in assigning meaning to events in one’s life by fitting them into a narrative. In fact, absent an external, universal “truth,” making meaning for one’s self while on this one, primary, material earth is not only admirable but necessary. (Note that just because it’s necessary doesn’t exactly make it easy.) But the danger begins once someone places¬†others in their story, and is then somehow able to make that story come true. This yarn-weaving writ large is how all grand political, industrial, and economic projects take shape—and all such projects demand the belief that at some level a human life (or millions of them) is expendable for the sake of the fulfillment of the story. Never mind non-human life or habitat, which is exchanged for even the basest, most insidious stories, in the tradition of Gilgamesh (the foundational text of agriculture/industry-based cultures) and including such hits as Manifest Destiny and the American Dream.

All the evidence I’ve seen and read suggests that our lives are not stories, and that time and free will are illusions anyway, so plot and action are kind of disqualified from the outset. (I would say “I’d love to be proven wrong on this,” but honestly it does not bother me.) That still leaves suspense, irony, and characters though, which is more than enough for a good scene or two.

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3 thoughts on “Your Life Isn’t a Story

  1. Interesting post, but forgive me for not quite understanding your objection to stories. Stories can be powerful, sustaining, and empowering.

    It seems one problem is that we are way too attached to stories, and the plot always twists. Another problem I see is that the wrong stories don’t serve us and reinforce our negative beliefs.

    We’re all living tragedies and comedies – it’s up the the storyteller to determine which tale to tell.

  2. The problem is that some story-tellers have a lot more authority and therefore a much bigger audience than others, while many of us without power rely on the stories told by the powerful to supply meaning in an indifferent universe. Why else would someone blow themselves up to kill strangers with no other strategic purpose? By doing so they become part of a story, which is apparently preferable to just existing in a plot-less ecosystem. But it’s not just suicide bombers; we all recant these stories almost as if they were prayers: I can be rich some day. I can change the world. I can be anything I want to be. These personal stories are all tributaries to national and global narratives that are, to put it lightly, less than helpful.

  3. Going one further, you are a story that you tell yourself. As in, your ego identity is a myth.

    I think stories are OK. They can be helpful. The myth of the self can be a very efficient mechanism for navigating the world in which we reside. But, like any tool, when used for every job, or not put down when its efficacy is in question, the story can become a hindrance.

    We exist across a spectrum of fields. Your body is all molecules, which are made of atoms, which far enough down are just energy. We can know this, but it doesn’t help much when you are really hungry or have to lift something really heavy. Knowing that your body or obstacle is “just energy” becomes sort of quaint in front of a material challenge.

    I think we need to know these things to keep ourselves in check. Knowing that we are a story, or that our culture is a series of myths, can help us step back from the absurd; can keep us from fully committing to a dangerous delusion. But none the less, we must go about certain activities to survive, and to feel joy.

    Stories are powerful. Know their power. Use it where it is the proper tool. Do not be manipulated by the nihilistic stories of others.

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