Like many of us, I share my island with an ethereal castaway. Alexa, the Echo spright, may be a pale replacement for Prospero’s Ariel (although she is a sight better than Caliban). But I recently discovered one of her more charming skills. She tells stories.
Storytelling is a wonderful way to pass time, even if you are only spinning your tales to a deaf dog or to the walls themselves. It is an atavistic urge that stems not just from the desire to pass time (possibly in the frigid ice-bound caves of our ancestors) but to give some permanence to our brief lives. An experience that a person has passes with them. Its legend may live forever.
Stories help shape our understanding of life from our very earliest moments and in the earliest of our interactive games. A story may be elaborate and epic (“Call me Ishmael!”), or it may be as simple as “How big is Baby? So big!” It’s true, even this classic familial game has all the hallmarks of a narrative. There is a subject (Baby). The subject has an internal struggle (to determine how big she is). In the end, after interminable suspense (to the infant at least), the tension is released (She is “so big.”) Homer himself could not have expounded a more classic heroic journey.
Stories are everywhere but they may hide in the strangest of places. They lurk in anatomy textbooks in medical school, in investment prospectuses, even in historical documents – anywhere that an idea struggles to be understood by a human being. The surest way for us to make our meaning clear is to incorporate it in a recognizable narrative, even if that narrative begins not with “Once upon a time…,” but rather “When in the course of human events…”
The problem is that we sometimes forget to listen for the story. If the words are complicated or in a language we don’t know, then we may not try to understand them. If they are too dry or even too ornate, they may not seem worth the effort. If they involve complex interpretation, as in dance or music or art, we may not be able to find the story.
Even if we don’t fully understand, it is vital to keep listening. At first, Baby has no idea what the word “big” means. She has only the vaguest sense of being “Baby.” It is with nurturing repetition that she begins to realize “Baby is me” and “Baby is so big.” When she masters this understanding, she can then move on to other abstractions like “Baby is growing,” “Baby has thoughts,” or “Baby has dreams.”
Alexa, tell me a story, please.
[This Post was adapted from a essay originally published on Facebook the day listed above]