|“Charles Reide” by Charles Mercier
Bear with me here, we’re going philosophical. This has been on my mind a lot lately: Why in the world do we tell stories? Why in the heck do we write?
And then the other day it hit me: Telling stories isn’t what we do in our spare hours, something just to pass the time. Telling stories is what we do period. Stories are how we make sense of life.
Our entire worldview and memories are created out of our stories. Two people can witness the same event, process and interpret it completely differently and reach completely different conclusions about what just happened. And that’s before the fluid and corrosive effects of memory take hold. The reality of the actual event, even if it was recorded on film, blurs into the past. In its place: Stories, our way of interpreting what we have seen, which is all we have to make sense of what passes before our eyes.
We are so adept at distilling our lives into stories that we forget how tenuous a connection they really have to reality, how much we highlight some events while brushing over others, how much our biases come into play, how we will weave together disparate events, even random occurrences, into some sort of cohesive shorthand that can’t possibly capture the enormity of a life. Heck, our stories can’t even fully capture the smallest of moments.
And when it comes down to it, all of our divisions of politics, history, religion, and partisanship come down to different beliefs in different stories. We go to war over different stories, we silently despair over different stories. When our friendships and relationships dissolve they do so because we can’t reconcile our competing narratives. One person’s temper is another person’s passion, one person’s reluctance is another person’s prudence.
How do you explain something as complex as the dissolution of a friendship? We’ll come up with a story that we can explain to others, but if we’re honest with ourselves I think we all sense that there’s some greater truth lurking just outside of our grasp.
Life is too complicated to hold in your head and relationships are too immense and multi-faceted to easily comprehend. So we write and tell stories to make sense of our relationships and existence. A novel can capture more than we can readily contemplate, and an author can, brick by brick, build a world that can illuminate and give meaning to some part of the full tapestry of our lives and relationships. They help us understand things that are too difficult to think about all at once.
Sometimes we catch a glimpse of the dark abyss of uncertainty beyond the comfort of our stories. When our stories are challenged in a particularly incisive way, when they fail to really encompass the totality of what we’re experiencing, when our beliefs are exposed for being mere stories rather than the reality we had tried to transubstantiate out of our fictions, we are confronted with the the chilling fact that there are unknowable truths at the heart of life.
So when faced with that paralyzing taste of uncertainty we retreat back to our narratives and the comforting cohesiveness of our fictions. Even if our stories are, inevitably, imperfect and incomplete.