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The Value of Story in a Chaotic World


I get very involved in the big events of our time, the ones being covered non-stop by the news, and especially the ones that push my personal buttons as a lefty vegan hippy witch grandma storyteller. So sometimes when I settle into my day’s work of making shit up, I question the value of what I do for a living. How can my make-believe worlds matter when our real world is teetering on the brink of who knows what? (Storytellers know, that's who. Think dystopian.)

I put some thought into that for this post, because, maybe it’s just me, but damn, I love a good story. And I want to think of indulging that passion as a good thing, a valuable thing, whether I’m reading, watching, or writing it.


So what is the value of story then?

I know all the standard answers to that. I understand that stories capture the culture of the time–the values, the tech, the everyday life, the way we think and feel about things–in a time capsule for future generations to understand.

I also recognize story's value in fulfilling our need to escape from our modern everyday lives into made-up worlds. It’s relief, release, entertainment, pleasure, joy.


Then there are the values, ethics, lessons, wisdom, and philosophy that we storytellers can convey through our fictional characters and their adventures; these have resonance in the real world. Injustice is wrong; Tyranny is evil; Love is the most powerful force in the universe. These are some of the universal themes found in the stories we love.

But it goes deeper

The real world makes no sense. The good guys don’t always win like they do in fiction—or even if they lose, there’s deep meaning and purpose behind it. Fiction makes sense.

In fiction we portray a world where things actually work out the way they ought to. And in popular fiction, the kind I write, the heroine you've been rooting for usually comes out on top, and the tyrants frequently meet fun and colorful comeuppances.

(Don’t spread it around, but killing off the bad guys is one of my favorite parts of storytelling.)

In real life, bad things happen to good people, and sometimes the bad guys win. In real life, the wrong guy gets convicted and the guilty get away. In real life, rich people don’t pay taxes and poor people work three jobs to get by. The real world doesn’t make any sense.

I think human beings possess an innate need for things to make sense. We automatically and intuitively look for patterns and meaning in everything around us. How long ago was it we started making shapes by playing connect-the-dots with the stars? (Badly! So badly!) It's in our DNA to find the pattern; to put the puzzle pieces together; to figure it all out. It's why we have science.


In Real Life

After we’ve lived through some traumatic period or major change, we arrange the memory of it in our minds. We talk it through to ourselves, as if we are telling the story to a stranger. We put it all in order. This event led to this event led to that event. Nothing is random when we re-tell it, even though it probably felt random at the time. We make everything fit. We see the pattern in hindsight. We make it make sense.

And the story version is the version we remember. We tell it over and over. It changes too, it gets better. It gets even more logical, not to mention more entertaining. It makes sense in our minds and in our memories now. We understand where we went wrong, or right, and how we got into and out of each episode of our lives.


Is hindsight really 20/20, then, or do we just make it that way?

In fiction

I think the order and logic we find in the worlds of story are as essential to the health of the human mind as food and water are to the body. We must have worlds wherein things make sense; where the good guys win, or die a hero’s death, saving the innocent or maybe the world; where the lovers find their happily ever after; where the bad guys come to their inevitable and bitter end, right there on the page.

It’s human nature to tell stories. But what if it wasn’t? What if we didn’t know how to make up entertaining tales, shows, plays, skits, TV shows, movies, books? What would life look like then?

It would be chaotic. We’d all be living under the constant threat of disaster, in a world where nothing made sense, and where an anvil could fall on our heads at any moment. We’d be living in states of stress and fear.


But, wait. We are living there, aren't we? Life is chaotic. A space rock could drop on our heads at any instant. Many of us do live under intense anxiety.


Story gives us a way to weave the threads of our lives together; to find previously unseen, even unthought-of connections of cause and effect, purpose and meaning, growth and change, silver linings.


We find all those things in the events of our lives because we’ve been trained to find them by storytellers down through the centuries. Because of fiction, we know that nothing is truly random, and that there’s an underlying pattern if we can just find it. Thanks to story, we know that things happen for a reason, and hope is real and logical because happy endings abound.

Thanks to story we know that there is a bigger picture to life, than the one we see when we’re standing in the middle of it. That’s what story does for us. Put succinctly, because of storytelling, and the way it has taught us to think, we humans can make sense of our chaotic, scary lives. We can even find meaning.

The twist at the end

Some would say we're deluding ourselves, looking for meaning in the random and chaotic events of our lives, and that story isn't reality.


I am not one of those. I'm a mystic. Looking for meaning is my groove.


So here’s my deeper truth. Those connections and reasons and and purpose that we find in the events of our lives are real. They were there all the time. We often can't see them until the storm has passed, but they were always there. One thing does lead to the next and to the next and to the next. Bad experiences often do end up bringing positive changes. In hindsight, the patterns sometimes become so obvious you feel like bonking yourself on the head like the old V8 ads.


Storytellers don’t just train us to believe in something that’s not real; they train our skeptical, practical computer-brains to see the underlying truths; that everything does have rhyme and reason; that there is a pattern to it all and order in the chaos.

Where would we be without the ability to recognize it? Where would we be without story?


 

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