We humans love to spin a yarn, to weave a web of memories, facts, wishes, images and metaphors. A good raconteur can entangle us in their web, as they transport us to the near past or the distant future. The storyteller is the ultimate shaman, sublime conjurer of worlds with words.
Hearing and telling stories helps us imagine new horizons and understand ourselves better. Narrative creates coherence, where otherwise there would be chaos. We must create a narrative if we are to find meaning in our lives. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has said that we acquire an identity by retelling, and thus putting order on, the past. In some deep way who we take ourselves to be, and the meaningfulness of our lives, is informed by the web of story we have spun in response to changing circumstances, upheavals, epiphanies, joys, sorrows etc.
We make sense of our lives by imposing a narrative structure on a sequence of events which are connected by virtue of the fact that we are the central protagonist. It is our story, but it’s a story with many chapters, and a large cast of characters, some with walk-on roles, some more prominent and enduring. To be clear here, I’m not talking about story in the sense that some people live their lives under the cloud of a self-limiting story which defines their identity solely in terms of their past and the beliefs they formed as a result of whatever negative things they experienced. Rather, I mean story as narrative, as a dynamic, complex, evolving, creative statement of our being in the world, our place in the overall scheme of things. Such a narrative is subject to endless revision in the face of the shifting sands of life and our (hopefully) consistent re-evaluation of our beliefs, goals, priorities and commitments. To borrow a term from neuroscience the narrative has plasticity.
Since childhood I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the nature of the self. I don’t know if I’m really any closer to understanding it now than I was then, beyond the fact that I’ve become a clearer thinker over the years. I think on some level who we are is always a mystery. We can at best know aspects of ourselves (not to mention others). Although in an important way we are connected to our former selves by our memories and our shared histories with others, in a fundamental way we are ever new, ever unknown. There’s always a new spin to put on the story.
The Advaidants (non-dualists in the yoga tradition) were onto something when they exhorted us to think of the self as ‘neti, neti’, not this, not that. They guided us towards identifying with that which is boundless and beyond concepts, rather than that which is impermanent and easy to label. The move is from temporary physical form to abiding non-physical.
But we are embodied beings having an embodied experience. We feel, laugh and cry, hug and kiss, drink wine, go for walks, and all the other stuff that humans do. And then we tell stories about the stuff that we do. Because stories create meaning. And without meaning there’s no point to life. And while we know that all of it is fleeting, it’s what we have. At times it’s just like home.