Editorial: Storytelling shapes the way we see the world

Editorial: Storytelling shapes the way we see the world

Everyone has that one story, maybe about that time when you were six and you got lost in a department store, or when you and your best friend climbed a tree and your best friend fell out and you had to call an ambulance and you were freaking out even though they were fine.

My personal “that one story” is from my high school French class senior year. French class was after lunch, and the most popular drink at lunch was chocolate milk, which came in containers with relatively loose plastic labels. I sat in the middle of the class, and to my left sat a talkative sophomore boy who wasn’t very good at French who I will call Kevin (not his real name). In front of him sat Harriet (also not her real name), a senior girl who didn’t talk much and was barely five feet tall.

On this particular day, Kevin had mostly peeled the label off of a chocolate milk container and was playing with it, which produced a really irritating crinkling noise. We were all irritated by it, but no one told him to stop, until about halfway through class, when Harriet finally snapped. She turned around in her seat, swiped the container right out of Kevin’s hands, and was halfway across the room before the rest of us could pry our jaws off the floor.

The teacher, who had been writing on the blackboard, turned around in confusion to see Harriet walking across the room and the rest of us gaping in amazement. When she asked Harriet what she was doing, Harriet responded with a better one-liner than I’ve heard in any action movie: “Just throwing this away for a friend.”

This story may be about a completely mundane event in an otherwise entirely forgettable class, but I still remember it clearly, because it made such a good story. There’s something about stories that make them a lot easier to remember — memorizing hundreds or thousands of digits of pi is extremely difficult, but many people have memorized epic poems or even the entire Bible. For comparison, the largest number of digits of pi that has been memorized is 67,590, while there are well over 3 million letters in the Bible and nearly 800,000 words.

In fact, many people talk in glowing terms about stories, claiming that stories are the most important thing for humans after food and clothes (Philip Pullman), stories make us who we are as people (Patrick Rothfuss) and stories can become our soul and entire purpose (Erin Morgenstern). Admittedly, most of these people are writers, who might be a little biased — and given that the Chimes is made up entirely of stories, I share a lot of this bias.

While stories might not literally be our souls, they certainly do make up a large part of how we see the world. If you’ve ever had had to physically put down a book because you got to a particularly gruesome or vicariously embarrassing part, then you’ll already know what psychological researchers found out in 2006: when interacting with sheer information, only the parts of the brain concerned with information processing light up, but when the same kinds of information are put in a story, the parts of the brain concerned with actually experiencing the kinds of things being described light up.

More than that, brain studies of a storyteller and the people listening to her story showed that both the storyteller’s and the listener’s brain lit up in the same way at the same time while the story was being told. Stories can be a way of putting yourself in someone else’s head — or getting someone else in your head.

This explains why telling stories — and listening to the stories of others — is so crucial in cases where the actual experience of other people matters. At Chimes, we’ve tried to tell stories in our features of LGBT students and students of color at Calvin, as well as many others, such as Bosnian-American staff members and individual students. We tell these stories because being able to experience the world from someone else’s perspective changes how we address not only certain specific issues, but also the world in general.

Even stories that aren’t true can have this effect. Sociologists argue that fairy tales serve to transmit societal norms to children in a form that is not only easy to understand, but engages the way that the child actually sees the world, instead of attempting to force feed them a list of beliefs. Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, picks up on the inspirational nature of this fact about stories: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Perhaps this is why the Bible is in the form of a story. Jesus told parables and children learn “Bible stories” in Sunday school, because the creation and redemption of the world is not, primarily, a list of facts. Soren Kierkegaard criticized the religious philosophers of his time for trying to prove the truth of Christianity in terms of factual evidence. Religion is about the meaning of our entire lives, and facts can simply never communicate that meaning persuasively. A story, however, can.