Many years ago, fourteen if I remember correctly, I wrote a book called Falling for Science, which attempted to look at the difference between science and storytelling, and specifically at the way the two interact. Were I to rewrite that now, there is no doubt much I would change, but the basic principles I would remain the same. We as humans do two interrelated yet in an important sense vastly different things when we attempt to comprehend our world. We build models of the world which allow us to make predictions about what is most likely to happen next, and we tell stories about this world, which imbue it with purpose and meaning. It is these stories which allow the emotional and spiritual engagement with existence, which provide us with our motivations, our values and, crucially, our sense of self worth. In the wee small hours, when our confidence shrinks to its smallest, most compressed self, what is it we can say with confidence about the life we live? What gives us cheer, hope and the will to move forward. What allows us to access our joy and our enthusiasm? The answer is story.
In Falling for Science I focussed mainly on the way we have misunderstood the link between science and storytelling, and the danger of thinking we are doing science when in fact we have slipped, unnoticed, into storytelling mode. That’s an important point, I think, particularly in an age so given to facile reductionism, but were I to write the book now my focus would be much more on story itself. What are the dominant stories in which our young are being raised and what is this doing to them? And from this, what is the responsibility of the storyteller, and perhaps most important of all, how can we deliberately and effectively change the stories we tell ourselves?
This is not the time for a philosophical diversion, such things tend to hijack useful discussions, but it is worth noting quickly that the problem in part is that people have become dismissive of stories. ‘It’s just a story’, ‘it’s not really true’, such statements are hangovers from the age of logical positivism, a conviction that there really are true facts about the world, and the stories we tell are simply whimsical decorations added for entertainment and diversion, but in some sense insubstantial. There is a belief that if only we understood the facts of the world, the truths, then there is no place for story. This is nonsense on stilts, for at least two important reasons. First, in philosophical terms, the idea of truth and fact is nowhere near that simple, and the idea that we can draw any neat sort of distinction between facts and stories is very hard to justify; it is for this reason that I am a pragmatist, philosophically speaking, convinced that the only helpful criteria we can apply to any model of the world is ‘how useful is this model to me?’ It is not that truth is irrelevant, but rather that this appears to be the only way we can usefully speak of truth – as a measure of helpfulness. On the psychological front, the idea that we simply have to understand the facts of the world massively misunderstands the nature of the human mind, and the way we go about making sense of the world. Most of the situations we encounter are too messy to be accurately modelled (we can’t predict how a coin toss will fall, but we really think we can rationally plot the progression of a relationship?) What’s more, even when we do have a strong sense of what is likely to happen, our response to the situation is still massively influenced by our emotional attitude towards that set of circumstances, and the stories we tell ourselves about our world play a huge role in driving that response.
This year, then, as a teacher, I want this truth of the world, the way we shape our stories and the way they shape us, to be a central understanding that my students move towards. We are currently experiencing an international surge in mental health issues amongst the young. I am of the opinion this is in part a result of the stories they have grown up surrounded with. Clearly it’s not the whole deal, but it feels like an area where we can at least make an immediate and positive contribution. I’ll give you just a couple of examples which may clarify my stance. The psychologist Martin Seligman has a lovely phrase, Post Traumatic Growth. He contends that the normal response to trauma, citing a figure of 90%, is, in time, personal growth. We are knocked over, it is completely devastating, we feel lost and experience despair, but we move through it, and come out the other side stronger. Mostly. Yet, if we look at the dominant mode of storytelling, intended to gain audience by being as ‘gritty’ ‘real’ and ‘shocking’ as it can possibly be, we see stories where trauma leads almost inevitably to devastation. What’s more, because devastation sits at the heart of these stories’ appeal, devastation itself, the inability to carry on, becomes glamorous, and there is the danger of a culture of competing towards the most suffering credibility by falling the hardest. Because we aren’t surrounding kids with stories of overcoming devastation, because we are not making heroes of those who soar above, we potentially create a world where the young miscue their responses to pain, believing that now it is their turn to slowly sink, to join the ranks of the inevitably despairing. Psychologists speak of the ABC model, where it is not actions that have consequences, but rather our beliefs about actions. Is it possible that by surrounding the young with stories of hope, and by explicitly communicating with them the truths of not just survival but recovery, and giving them the power to redraw their own stories and deliberately reframe their beliefs, we can make them more emotionally resilient and hopeful? Many researchers in the field believe we can, and I can’t see why I wouldn’t want to try it. If Seligman and co are correct, then it is a perfect example of the way our experience of the world is determined largely by the stories we tell ourselves about the world. I can’t protect my students from trauma. Terrible things will happen to them during their lives. Of course. Wonderful things will happen too. But what if I can change the expectations they have about how those terrible things are going to affect them?
My second example is to do with purpose. What our purpose in life is, is inevitably the result of story. Existentialists found this a very challenging fact and so were prone to collapse into a pit of despair, saying odd things like ‘there is no meaning, it’s all invention.’ Actually there is plenty of meaning, as much of it as we want. That it is all invention is not a bad thing, it’s rather a wonderful opportunity (why oh why are there not more pragmatists?) We get to decide what our life is all about, and in this we will be constrained by our culture and our nature. So, given the kinds of folk we are, and the kinds of world we live in, what kind of purpose should we choose? This too strikes me as an excellent question to pose to our young. The thing I want my students to consider is that, if they do not explicitly address this question themselves, the world will provide any number of answers. What makes me valuable? Well, how about how I look and how others judge my appearance? How about how much money I have, or how influential I am, or how many friends I have, or how smart I am, or how much cool stuff I own, or how funny I am, or how many people I have sex with? There is a completely overwhelming cultural narrative spinning a thousand different ways of enslaving ourselves to forces beyond our control. I can’t really change how I look, it takes tremendous effort to change what I earn, making more friends only makes it more difficult to sustain the friendships I currently have, and in the end it’s the friends who will choose as much as I will. The singular danger of so many of the purpose narratives is the way they disempower, urging the young developing mind to seek external approval as a way of feeling worthwhile. And here is where one of the most ancient understandings of purpose has such wonderful power. For what if the primary purpose in life, the way by which we should most judge our worth and sense of self, is kindness? It accords well with our nature, all the research suggests being kind makes us feel good, and wonderfully it is also entirely within our own control. In a given day we will face a hundred tiny moral choices, opportunities to be either kind or selfish. It is the very fact that it is up to us how we proceed, that we are not constrained, that makes these choices moral. So we get to choose whether or not we are kind, the world doesn’t judge and label us on this one, most acts of kindness will go unnoticed, we get to make the call. And that is the definition of empowerment. The difference between trying to be kind and trying to look hot is twofold in this respect. First, the external world judges our looks, we judge the quality of our decisions, and second, hotness tends to be competitive. It’s not that everybody can look great, because looking great tends to be defined as looking exceptionally great. It’s a stupid road to mass misery. So too being wealthy, smart, influential or popular. These are all games which you have very little control over and which only a few, by design, can win. They’re stupid games. Kindness by contrast is not comparative. If you set your worth by being kind, then the kindness of others does not diminish you. Rather is raises you all up. This before we even consider how it’s good the person receiving the kindness.
So, again, here is a story we get to tell ourselves. Buy into a story that kindness matters, that your moral qualities define you, and you give yourself tremendous power when it comes to flourishing. The stories we tell ourselves about what makes us valuable profoundly change the way the we experience the world. Maybe there are better examples than kindness, ancient wisdoms identify a range of virtues worthy of consideration, but it strikes me as a good place to start.
Here’s to the power of storytelling, and the realisation that no storyteller will ever influence us more than the one residing inside our own heads. If I ever write a follow up book I shall have to call it Falling for Story.