When the outlandish conspiracy theories about the Boston Marathon bombings began to circulate, naturally I thought back to last week’s post about the storytelling habits of the human mind. It’s only natural that we want immediate answers to the questions, who did this and why? So in the absence of real explanatory information our left brains begin to pick up clues, both real and imagined, and weave them into a coherent narrative. For some, what counts as coherent is a little further “out there” than for others.
Good storytelling things happened too though. We sought and told individual stories of the victim’s personal tragedy and loss, an endeavor which promotes compassion and acts of charity; and we sought and told stories of the heroism of first responders and civilian bystanders, which highlights the courage and resiliency of the human spirit.
I finished Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal this week, and fortunately Gottschall does not leave us with the idea of our minds as paranoid creators of conspiracy theories for his final thesis. He goes on to trace the usefulness of several features of our storytelling minds:
- The stories we create about religious beliefs often cause us to act more charitably toward each other, and to bind us together in communities of belief.
- Our stories are almost always moral in some way. There are bad guys who do bad things, but they usually get their comeuppance in one way or another, and we learn from that. “Fiction virtually always puts us in a position to judge wrongdoing, and we do so with gusto.” Thus story binds us together by reinforcing common values.
- Stories can change the world for better or worse. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a tremendous positive influence on American culture; Adolf Hitler credited Richard Wagner’s opera Rienzi with inspiring him to fulfill what he considered to be his destiny. Stories can change our beliefs and maybe even our personalities, and that can have a tremendous impact on society.
- Our tendency to re-make memory and current reality in the service of our own life stories serves a critical function; it keep us from despair. We imbue our lives with meaning in order to keep moving forward. The alternative might be to sink into the notion that we are insignificant dots in the universe with short, pointless lives.
Gottschall concludes that writers who lament the so-called death of story are missing the point. Story is not dying; on the contrary, we need it more than ever. Some story formats might be dying, e.g. written poetry, but only to be replaced by others, e.g. song. The future will bring us story more intensely than ever. Instead of being readers and observers of fiction, we will become participants in it, through new interactive fiction media like reality shows and virtual reality games on the internet. “The real threat isn’t that story will fade out of human life in the future; it’s that story will take it over completely.”
The message is to embrace our storytelling nature, but to do so cautiously, with eyes wide open to the dangers of excess and naivete. We should continue to seek the stories of heroism in Boston, and of course, to seek the truth about who did this terrible thing. But we should also critically evaluate the stories we hear and read and see, and guard against those stories that lead us to destructive paranoia.
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