The stories we tell

We need stories.

They help us make sense of our existence, of where we have been and where we are going, of what is right and wrong, and what purpose and meaning we find along our way, crooked or straight.


It seems there is a story ready-made for every phase of our lives. We borrow these stories and mold and shape them to fit our own circumstances.

There is the story of birth, the story of coming of age, the boy-meets-girl story, the overcome-odds career story. The stories of joy and grief, of love and loss, and of success and failure, of faith and redemption. Finally there is the last story, the story of death, one that others will have to tell for and about us, for we will have departed the stage.

Some stories are one-of-a-kind, bespoke stories, made unique by events or by circumstance: the first man on the moon or the last man (or woman) standing after a tornado has swept through a farm town.

Others are universal, archetypical, templates for the human condition, mythic in their scope and focus. In some magic way these legendary stories reflect elemental truths or record traditions of great value.

Scholars like Joseph Campbell have outlined the repetitive myths that have excited our imaginations for centuries: the Quest of the Hero, the Pursuit of Love, the Adoration of the Sacred, our Rendezvous with Death.

These stories tap into powerful human memories, into what Jung called the collective unconscious, in strange and surprising ways. How else to account for the continuing popularity of the saga of Beowulf? The story’s appeal to its original 8th century audience seems natural: it tells of a hero who fights the monsters that roam in the dark outside the warmth and light of the Great Hall, both a cautionary tale and one designed to inspire the courage of its listeners.

The primal power of Beowulf has lasted. The saga has been retold in fiction and film repeatedly. There have been four full-length cinematic versions in the first decade of this century alone, including one featuring Angelina Jolie (director Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 Beowulf) and another, Outlander (2008), that reimagines the story from the perspective of a warrior from outer space.

Hollywood will never run out of material, for like children at bedtime, we seem to crave hearing the same tale—with some embellishments—over and over again.

Then there are our own stories, the ones we tell ourselves. They chronicle our existence. They may, or may not, align with what others see or experience but they are stubbornly ours. In them we often play the role of unreliable narrator (a term invented by literary critics), and yet we can be reliably expected to fashion a story that somehow meets our psychic needs. We may be victim or hero, bystander or protagonist, innocent or guilty. We may sand off the rough edges and conveniently forget those awkward moments that don’t quite fit into the storyline we have crafted. Under extreme pressure, we may even create a freshly-conceived, alternative reality and come to believe in it.

We need these stories, both the personal and the borrowed. They help us find our place in the world. They give us roots. They can gird us for combat or prepare us for love. They inspire us (remembering that inspire in the Latin means to breathe into). They are the stuff of dreams and of nightmares.

They may very well be what sets us apart from the rest of creation. Who else tells stories? And who else lives by them?

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
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