In the beginning was the word. And the storyteller took that word and ran with it, and ever since has been trying, like a kid walking in his Daddy’s shoes, to conjure a world as tangible as God did.
That is not a recently discovered fragment from St. John’s Gospel but a summary of mankind’s urge to create.
Most people have heard Rene Descarte’s statement “I think, therefore I am.” Fewer know Ambrose Bierce’s “I think I think, therefore I think I am.” I would add, “I tell stories, therefore I am”. This implies that if I ever cease telling stories I will cease to be. That may not be true for me personally but I think it is certainly true for us as a species.
Story telling has the unfortunate reputation for being nothing but telling lies. Everyone has heard, or told a fish story. Mark Twain maintained that any man who can’t lie or curse deserves no respect and gets none. I’ve known enough Texans to have observed that when one of them prefaces some fantastic account with the words “true story” they really mean “I’m about to tell you one hell of a whopper so listen up.”
Let me clarify that by ‘storytelling’ I do not mean ‘jokes’. Storytelling and standup comedy may be related but only in the way that you are related to that oaf of a brother-in-law who came in the same package as your spouse. The shelf life of most jokes expired before anyone ever told them.
Someone like Richard Pryor may be known as a standup comedian but he was a storyteller, not a joke teller. Few could create characters with the depth and poignancy that he did. His hilarious and horrific account of his heart attack left me gasping for breath not only from laughter but also cringing with horror and empathy too. The man could wring every possible emotion from one of his stories. No joke.
Now the so called social media via twitter has reduced human communication down to what, 140 characters? Can you imagine what epic story could be told populated with one hundred forty interacting characters?
The truth is we all love to hear stories and tell stories and retell them. We can’t help it. It is human.
Storytelling is one thing that differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. There are many good stories about animals. But I’ve honestly never known any animal who could tell a story worth a damn. On the upside, most animals are terrible liars and for the most part they abstain from that dubious practice. Only as animals approach humans in appearance and intelligence do they begin to practice deceit. Dogs are known as man’s best friend because they are generally more trustworthy than other men.
We gain a sense of identity from stories. They put flesh on our daily passage. Without them we would plod through our lives like specters – not knowing where we wander, or why. They give our lives context.
Regardless what else we may leave behind, those stories of us, retold by our survivors, serve as our memorial for but a generation or two. Some reckon their immortality by this measure. As immortality goes, memory is a short yard stick.
Like the arrow that hits its mark, the truth and integrity of our stories is what compels people to repeat them. Do you know any stories about a great uncle or your Grandmother? Why do you think people still tell them? Our Founding Father’s stories live on because they resonate with us. They are good stories. They are true, not just in fact but in essence.
Of course the best story is one that lasts not mere generations, nor centuries but is measured by the millennia it has survived.
And that is the Truth.