Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why Are Stories Necessary? Part 1

I received the following question from my friend George Chatzigeorgiou in Greece, whose excellent input to understanding the moral premise (with respect to the movie MIDNIGHT RUN) I have posted elsewhere on this blog, HERE.

I've bolded certain phrases that George uses, because they are so well put.
George writes:

Dear Stan:

I have a question regarding the moral premise which is so basic I'm almost embarrassed to ask it. I suspect the answer must be right under my nose, so please humor me by answering it!

My question is this: We've established that the essence of story is change, or transformation if you like. We've also established that this change of fortune, whether for better or for worse, is dependent upon a moral choice the protagonist makes; and we know that this in turn leads to fundamental truths about the human condition and how best to live our lives, truths which pass on to the audience or the reader, the recipient of the story. It's also widely accepted that stories are not just some luxury of sorts, and that there's a real need for stories that is universal and begins since the dawn of mankind. So, if the ultimate purpose of story comes down to passing on some crucial and fundamental truths, then whey do you need stories to convey those truths? Why do we need the vehicle of a story to do that?

For example, if I say to you, "Battling adversity alone leads to weakness and defeat, while battling adversity as a family leads to strength and victory", why won't my communication have the same profound effect in your life as watching 'The Incredibles'? If this truth is so crucial and so fundamental to the human existence, then why don't we immediately recognize it and abide by it? Why does this truth need to be incorporated in a narrative in order to have a better chance of making an impact on our lives?

Also, do you think a good story with a true moral premise can really change people and make a difference in the world? Is there some sort of mechanism inside us that causes a good story to have such a magical effect? Is there a real logic behind thinking that good stories can really benefit the world and make a difference? Stan, is there a thoroughly convincing logical argument to support that storytellers are really able to make a difference in the world and serve a high purpose, and that they're not mere entertainers who try to convince themselves otherwise?
Well, I don't know why I just didn't bold, underline, and highlight the whole message. Didn't I write a whole chapter on this? It seems I did, but I can't find it.

So, thank you George, for asking the obvious, ubiquitous, elephant-in-the-room question.

George's question get at the heart of what it means to be human. And by human I do not mean "animal," or any other lesser life form. Human beings are different, in the very way George is observing. THEY TRANSCEND everything else in creation. They ask questions like "Why am I here?" "Why is life?" "What am I suppose to do?" and "How can I be good and not bad?" And it is in asking those questions that we touch the very essence of the human condition—we are made in God's image. BANG! We have a self-conscience. Nothing else does. We know there is something more than the moment in time we are experiencing. It is inherent in our being, and we can't escape from it. Those that try to escape end up in psychiatric hospitals. Why story? Why, indeed! Well, here's why.

ONLY THROUGH STORY CAN WE "SEE" OUR LIFE FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF OUR CREATOR. (See link at end.) Our thirst for stories proves the existence of something greater than us, beyond us, looking in on us, giving us meaning, and someone who most likely put us here. The IDEA that we can KNOW what life MEANS, is evidence that a transcendent ANSWER exists.

Okay, okay, okay... forget the grand philosophy and pontificating. Here are some actual answers, which I'll give in antiphonal fashion to George's highlighted comments:


Yes! The essence of life is change and transformation (up or down). We HOPE things, life, situations, ourselves, can CHANGE and get above (transform) our current miserable life. In the Rosary prayer there's this beautiful line — "here in this valley of tears" — which points to our human need to change and be transformed. It is only in reliving the lives of others (from true history, or metaphor, and parables) that we have hope of that change, BECAUSE IT HAS ALREADY HAPPENED TO OTHERS.

If you simply tell me I can change, I don't see it, understand it, or comprehend how the change can occur. But, if you tell me a story or show me the life struggles of someone who has changed, then I BELIEVE, I ENVISION, and I begin to work toward that end. I have a role model, and example, in short — PROOF.


I don't' have time to explain all of this, but hopefully you'll understand that achieving the change we want or need, comes only through our own SELF DETERMINATION. The current political argument about socialism and Marxism vs. democracy and self-determination is what this is all about. God has given us (personally and individually) a choice: make good decisions that are in accordance with the laws that I've put into place which allow the universe to operate smoothly, or buck them and suffer the consequences. (There is a collective decision we can make and suffer consequences, for sure, but the collective is only as good as the mass of individuals who make the decisions. The collective has no consciousness, will, or soul. Only individuals do. And that's why Marxism and Communism and Socialism ultimately fail in all their forms throughout history. )

We are thus not responsible for bad things that happen of which we made no decision that caused the thing to happen. We are inherently (by virtue of God's laws, or natural laws) ONLY RESPONSIBLE FOR OURSELVES and those things that happen DIRECTLY as the result of our decisions. We can yell victim all we want, but ultimately we can control our attitude. If we are maimed by a mad man, our responsibility is our attitude toward the horrific event. Do we become bitter or forgiving? Do we seek revenge or consolation? And yet this does not marginalize or denigrate the importance of corporate decisions or the laws of a republic for the common good. But at the heart of all morality is the INDIVIDUAL and SELF-DETERMINATION -- you take that away and you'll end up like East Berlin during the cold war in very short order.


Our choice of our future and our own self-determination is a fundamental truth about the human condition. God has written into the universe and into all human hearts certain non-negotiable rules. One of those rules is "gravity" by the way. Another is the need to tell the truth if you want to live in community with others. Obey these rules an live. Disobey them and die. (See Genesis 2:17, although we don't need the Bible to know that if we step off a cliff we're doomed to fall to our death.)


Sooooo right! Stories require time, and time is the critical element of stories that explain life. Stories are as important as time. Only stories can measure and mark time. Stories cannot exist without time. And time is only measured in terms of stories.

One of the things that points to the importance of time as it interplays with a person's life is that rich and poor have the same amount of time. The richest can not can't make more time. They can make more money, but not time. Time is the great equalizer. There is no "class" when it comes to time. Consequently the rich can understand the drama involved in a pauper's life, and the pauper can comprehend the suspense that brings the rich to their knees. Indeed death is a milestone of time and story, and both the rich and poor die.

Time is that ubiquitous "dimension" (although it has no dimension that we can perceive -- it's a zero-dimension, a dot, that moves along a two dimension line called a life's timeline. But we cannot perceived the line, only the dot.

Yet God perceives simultaneously the two or three dimensions of lines that constitutes multiple lives in multiples places at multiple times. And because we are made in the image of God, and because time and story are dependent on each other, stories allow us to look at our lives, and all history as God does. Stories allow us to time-travel, and instantly bi-locate, even tri-locate our minds across centuries and continents. Stories allow us to experience the attributes of God -- the omnipresence, the omniscience, if not also the omnipotence.


What I just said... to tell time. To tell us IN time, how important decisions are.
Stories manipulate TIME and allow us to see things as God sees them...without the limit of time. We can only experience the Zero-T of time. In reality, we cannot see forward or backward along our timeline or any one else's. But if we tell a story we can move through time and explain why things are, and how they could have been. That is because DECISIONS (especially moral ones) are made in time. A decision is a milestone, a marker, that helps define time. When we decide to study hard and graduate from a school, our GRADUATION DAY marks the culmination of many moral decisions to study so that we may eventually graduate. Thus, graduation is a MARKER of our moral decisions, and the GRADUATION event TELLS us what TIME it is. Telling the story about how we graduated allows us to explore the many moral decisions that we made right so we could graduate, and the many wrong moral decisions a friend made so he would NOT graduate.


Because didactic communication (telling me what to do) does not let me relive the decisions of others and see the consequences of those decisions. If you simply tell me to do something and explain the consequences, the degree to which I believe what you say will happen or not happen depends on a long relationship of trust between us. That trust is the result of many stories and shared experiences passing between us. But if that deep relationship does not exist then there is no realization of the consequence. But a story SIMULATES my life, convinces me that the moral decisions and the consequence have meaning. I can see what happens to Mr. Incredible when he tries to do things alone. I can see what happens to the Incredible Family when they battle adversity together. Because of the relationship with those characters in the first two acts, I IDENTIFY with them. I have established a relationship with them and I am emotionally attached to their decisions. I have lived in their time and their story. I see myself in them because I have made decisions like they have, and to some degree lived the consequences. They reinforce the pattern of my life (assuming their story was created around a true moral premise.)

Unlike didactic communication (telling), narrative communication shows, demonstrates, simulates, and dramatizes the effect of time on those decisions and consequences. Didactic communication has no power to demonstrate, show, or dramatize. You've heard the expression that "experience is the best teacher". Why is that? Because experience creates the drama of time as it relates to decision and consequence, and the suspense between those two nodes. We make a decision (and take an action) and then suspense sets in as we wait to see what the consequence will be. That suspense and intrigue create an adrenaline rush that sensitives the synapses in our brain to remember the consequence when it occurs. Movies especially, but all stories too, rely on this natural method of time, decision, consequence and help us IDENTIFY with the characters as if we were them. Because the story depends on time to work, it can create drama, which gives us an adrenalin rush, which triggers our brain to remember the relationship between a particular decision and its consequence.

Stories also allow us to see inside the mind of a character and know their motivation and moral values, thus identifying the moral good and bad of attitudes and how various kinds of THINKING leads to kinds of ACTION and thus CONSEQUENCE.

A friend used to say to our kids (his daughter and my son before they were married, although it is still true now that they are married with 4 kids of their own): "You can make any decision you want, but you have no choice over the consequence." In family matter that consequence may come from the arbitrary will of a parent. But in society that consequence may come from a policeman, a judge, a jury, or even a spouse. We can cheat on our wife (we have the freedom to make that decision) but we have no control over her jealously or bitterness when she finds out. It's one thing to tell someone "DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY" but to experience it is a far better teacher. But who wants to go through ADULTERY to learn its consequences? Not anyone, really. So, what's a better way to do it? TELL A STORY. SHOW A STORY. Let people identify with the husband and wife, and learn through a SIMULATION the natural laws of the universe. And, hopefully, they won't do it in real life.


They do, undoubtedly. Newspaper and novel accounts of behavior and its consequence convince far more people than didactic preaching. Movie fans that watch the lives of movie stars come and go, learn a great deal about what not do to if you want to be happy. It's one thing not to get caught with a hooker on Sunset Blvd (e.g. Hugh Grant) but I'm sure Elizabeth Hurley wish he had avoided the hooker altogether. If Hugh didn't learn anything from that story out of his life, we sure should have.

We can easily say that storytellers have value, because people spent billions of dollars each year to watch stories, or listen to them. Stories come in all forms, from the $200 million block buster to the weather report. News, magazines, gossip, parables... they all communicate the cause and effect of moral decisions and their consequences. We can't escape storytellers, because they are as important as time and morality.


Here's a link to a short essay I wrote years ago (but reposted on this blog) that explains why movies (and stories) give us insight into our "divine destiny." That is, stories help us transcend this life and give it meaning. Transcendence, of course, is the ultimate transformation or change. We hope for a better life. Time empowers that hope. And stories tell us how to achieve it.

Link to Why Are Stories Necessary? Part 2

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