Everyone loves a good story. When we share stories we can express ourselves. But the narrative has limits.
Despite how stories work, our lives don’t actually follow story lines. There are no moments of realization, scenes of rising action, protagonists or “happily ever after” endings.
When The Moth, a nonprofit group dedicated to storytelling, invited IU students to share personal stories at an open mic last November, it was a thrill to hear the experiences of dozens of other students.
We shared stories and applauded the literary prowess and courage of one another.
We shared tales of hormone-hungry middle school crushes, enlightening experiences abroad and heart-wrenching deaths in the family.
But the story can distort reality.
Many times our emotion-driven desires are only short-lived moments of satisfaction. Becoming enlightened, even in a foreign country, is never so simple. And treating death in the family like a sob story can be downright disrespectful.
While everyone at the Moth’s storytelling event probably understood these limitations, the struggle against the story is present in many of our lives.
A journalist might try to present information objectively. A physician must understand a patient’s background without deviating into narrative traps. And a lawyer may have to defend a client through the cold, hard facts.
Rhetoric itself has power over truth, validity, provability and other concepts. Tara Isabella Burton, religion and culture journalist, says, “A control of narrative and language has been inextricable from notions of political and cultural control.”
Our understanding of the narrative can be governed by forms of sexual inequality. Stories about societies with racism might internalize white power.
Put another way, the narrative represents a threat to ourselves in our ability to reason and seek the truth. We might take what the writer says for granted, without context or with a different interpretation.
But most of us aren’t dangerous. We’re rational people who know what’s right and wrong so we can make sense of stories.
And we can use stories for better purposes.
A journalist can present stories descriptively and evenhandedly. A physician should listen to the patient’s tale to foster empathy and good will. And a lawyer might present a case to the jury as though it were a narrative.
The power of stories let us escape our temporary lives into an immortal world of imagination. Stories soothe and stimulate. They inspire social and political movements.
We shouldn’t abandon storytelling altogether. We just need to recognize its power to destroy before we can create things anew. Stories tell us about who we are. We can harness their power to do good just as much as we can to do harm.
It’s easy to point at violent video games, vampire movies and Soulja Boy as corrupting our society — to which I respond with, “story of my life.”
But we need to also recognize that stories can be used for similar destructive purposes. And only when we understand this can we truly make sense of ourselves.