The Truth & Untruth of Stories


Stories are incredibly powerful. We hunger for an unfolding plot just like we crave a delicious meal: we read articles, watch dramas, play games, listen to our friends’ stories of their trip to South America. We are filled with a sense of peace when a gripping tale comes to a satisfying conclusion. In stories, events are meaningful. They play out according to human principles such as love, or fate, or justice. In stories, we do not live in a blind, uncaring universe.


The Truth of Stories

Humans try to make real life obey story rules.
And… you live in a world that’s largely created by humans.
So… story rules apply to you. You are in a story.

Actually, you are in a lot of stories, and you probably play a lot of different roles. If you can identify what type of character you’re playing in the story of your life, you can find ways to make it work for you… or you can decide to change it. I have had periods in my life where I wished I was more fit: I was playing the part of the wishful thinker. So I exercised occasionally. I've also had periods in my life where, in my head, I was the hard-core athlete. That guy would get out of bed early on a winter morning and go running in the grey rain. There were no excuses for that character. If I'm being true to my role as "athletic person", I get up, I run.*

This may sound like a metaphor, but it isn't. People facing tricky choices genuinely do ask themselves, “What would a person like me do in this situation?” It's subtly different, and subtly more powerful than simply asking "What on earth should I do?"  This is great! (As long as we choose to be heroes rather than villains). Stories can affirm our ideals, our values, our strengths.

The Untruth of Stories

But we can also fall into the trap of using stories to justify morally ambiguous choices. “This terrible event happened to him because he did something to deserve it,” is a story which absolves us of compassion. “People know how much self-sacrifice I make in order to get things done, so they forgive me for being cranky or absent.” That’s another dangerous story.

I won’t even go into the danger of stories based on stereotypes.

There are short phrases called aphorisms (like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, or “you’re never too old to learn”) which act like mini-stories. When we’re racking our brains for wisdom, it can be tempting to look to these mini-stories for guidance. But aphorisms don’t contain cosmic truths. They’re just a shorthand story: useful to get an idea across easily. You can always find an aphorism that represents exactly the opposite idea if you like. Aphorisms are dangerous if we use them to justify poor or hasty judgments. Cheating with stories is no way to make an important decision – you've got to use better powers than that.

In summary, you are a real person – you live in the real world. You’re also a fictional character: you live inside stories. How satisfying it is, and how sensible, to learn the rules of both.

* I have also had periods in my life when I was the character who ate all the tim tams.