We all like a good story, don’t we. Whether its reading a novel, watching a film, or being absorbed in a drama on television, there’s just something about a well told story that’s deeply satisfying. But have you ever considered just how integral story telling is to our life? Or the degree to which stories control us?
We all have stories we tell, stories concerning our lives, stories that provide the structures from which we derive the meaning and purpose of our lives. We have, for example, the story we tell at a job interview, or the story we tell when we go on a date for the first time with a potential new partner. These tend to use highly selective aspects of our lives, deliberately edited to place us in the best possible light, constructed to get us the job we want or impress the person sitting opposite. But there are also the stories we tell our selves, the stories through which we make sense of our numerous life events, through which these often disparate events are woven into a coherent narrative that makes sense, that has a story line that is going somewhere.
In these all these stories we feature as a subject, a subject partly based on fact, but a subject that is also part fiction. I mean, let’s be brutally honest about this, we revise, edit, polish, round the corners, remove the ugly bits from the events of our life. To use a well quoted journalistic phrase, ‘why let the truth get in the way of a good story?’ We don’t do this because we are inherently bad, or because we set out to deceive (though on the job interview or first date this may be the case), we do it because we have a need to make sense of the constant stream of experiences life throws at us – and life is just too complex for us to make sense of it ‘as it is’.
But who is the author of this story? Who is doing the editing and re-writing? Who selects what to include and what to leave out? And, further, what is the relationship between author and subject? This, I believe, is a very ambiguous relationship, not least because the subject is both created by, and in turn creates, the author.
To make this relationship even more ambiguous, the subject-author is not the only writer of our life story; the subject-author is also subjected to the meanings and structures of the dominant social narrative – a larger, mostly silent background story from which we absorb our place in the world and create our take on life’s meaning and purpose. Our various roles only have meaning against this backdrop, through a comparison with the roles of others. We make sense of our own lives by differentiating them from those of others.
This ghostly background story structure exerts a huge influence on us as the subject-author of our own life story, an influence that is particularly noticeable when we are faced with the need for fundamental social change. Take our dominant economic narrative for example, the story that supplies us with the role of being good consumers and the goal of measuring the success of our life by the amount of wealth we have created. We may reason that in order to mitigate the worst effects of man-made climate change we need to consume less stuff, take fewer flights, and measure success by non-monetary means. But making these changes often involves a fundamental change in our role as a subject within this all pervasive economic story, and this makes us feel emotionally ill at ease. For many of us the necessary changes just feel wrong, and they often feel to be against common-sense. This is because our own personal stories are so deeply embedded within this all pervasive economic story that this grand-narrative has become, quite literally, common-sense.
So, how do we start to loosen the strangle hold these social narratives have over us? How do we achieve a sufficient degree of freedom for our ability to reason such that we can escape the tyranny of this so called common-sense? I will end with just three suggestions: We try very hard to bring this ghostly background into into the sunlit foreground by talking about the role of stories in our lives at every opportunity. We become accustomed to thinking of our lives as narratives which we author and feature in as the main character. Next, we simply accept what I call the paradox of necessary fiction – that all these stories, whilst based on actual events, are, nevertheless, fictions – but that they are totally necessary fictions in as far as we need the meaning and purpose they supply to our lives. And third, that we try to break the ‘common-sense’ spell through the prodigious use of comedy and satire – invaluable tools in exposing the absurdities of life.