The Stories We Live By

“The primary purpose of narrative,” media scholar Katherine Hayles argued several years ago, “is to search for meaning,” which makes “narrative an essential technology for human beings, who can arguably be defined as meaning-­seeking animals.”

Narrative is a deceptively simple technique deployed by the human mind in order to make sense of the world. It is a tool by which we extract meaning from the chaotic flux of lived experience. In this way, it is, as Hayles suggests, essential. It would be hard to imagine how we could get on without it and still function in a recognizably human fashion.

Imagine trying to answer the questions “What happened?” or “Who are you?” without recourse to narrative. Regarding the latter question, it may be useful to remember Hannah Arendt’s distinction between who I am and what I am. Perhaps I can respond to the question “What am I?” without a story, but I don’t think I could do so to the more significant question “Who am I?”

Returning to Hayles, we might say that this is because the question of who I am is a question of meaning rather than merely a question of fact, and, as she pointed out, the search for meaning is the primary purpose of narrative. Further, we are, as Hayles aptly put it, “meaning-seeking animals.” So critical is our desire for meaning that, tragically, it is not unknown for human beings to sooner end their lives than go on living without a substantive experience of meaning.

One can find a similar line of thought in the work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Like Hayles, MacIntyre finds that being human is closely related to the mediations of narrative. “Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions,” MacIntyre argued, “essentially a story-telling animal.” MacIntyre also went so far as to suggest that “the unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest.” Moreover, he claimed, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

Narrative is our default sense-making technique, in part, because it reflects our fundamentally time-bound existence. We experience life as a succession of moments yielding a discernible past, present, and future. Likewise, while narratives can artfully play with the representation of time, they are typically structured in a manner that mirrors our experience of time. But, ordinarily, narratives are not merely a chronological list of all events or happenings. They are selective and purposeful: events are included so as to yield or imply meaningful relationships, establishing not only what has happened but also why and with what significance.

There are all manner of narratives or stories, of course. Some of them are slapdash and of little consequence, the little story we tell when someone asks about our day, for example. Others are more complicated and significant, such as the story we might tell about how we fell in love. There are stories, too, regarding our family history, our racial background, our national allegiance, our political principles, and our religious convictions that are very near to the core of our identity. These stories amount to something like the larger fabric into which we weave the thread of our own biographies. They frame our sense of self, and, to some degree, they provide a template for how we ought to conduct ourselves, what we ought to value, and who we should aspire to be. This is what MacIntyre was getting at when he said that you can know what you are to do only if you also know what story or stories you are a part of.

Stories of this sort also act as a filter on reality. We never merely perceive the world, we interpret it. In fact, our perception is already interpretation. And the work of interpretation depends to no small degree on the stories that we have internalized about the world, which provide categories, tropes, moral evaluations, and assumptions about character that we use to parse new situations. So when we hear about this, that, or the other thing happening, we tend to fit the event into our paradigmatic stories. To be clear, this is not a bad thing. How could it be otherwise? Perhaps this is overstated, but it seems that our humanity is, in fact, wrapped up with this story-telling capacity.

So we might say, then, that stories shape our identity, grant to us a sense of direction, and play an important role in our interpretation of the world.

Not surprisingly, we don’t alter or abandon these stories on a whim; we hold them tightly. These are the sorts of stories we live by, and, in some admittedly extreme cases, we might even die rather than deny them. New facts alone are unlikely to make much of a difference because we tend to interpret these facts in light of our existing narrative repertoire. This is not to say that it is impossible for someone to modify or renounce such stories, only that it is understandably difficult to do so.

A challenge to our paradigmatic stories may bring on an existential crisis. Indeed, altering or abandoning stories of this sort or embracing new ones is not unlike a conversion experience. But conversions can and do happen. We should just be clear about what is going on when our own core stories are challenged or when we set about challenging someone else’s. And it may be especially unlikely that we would relinquish such stories under stress since it is under stress that we need them most.

In this light, our narrative technology, which ordinarily serves us well, may also lead us astray. It may convince us that we ourselves or our neighbors have no value, it may blind us to profound injustice, or worse still, involve us directly in the injustice.

A time of profound social turmoil can be disorienting because it threatens us with narrative collapse. Our stories are working overtime to encompass novel and disturbing events, and perhaps they are not altogether up to the task. Maybe we begin to recognize that the stories we’ve taken for granted are not doing a very good job of sorting out and making sense of everything we are witnessing and experiencing. Thus may begin the difficult task of beginning to see the world anew. If this means that we can begin to see the world more truthfully and with greater charity, then we will be better for it.

Unfortunately, the pressures of the crisis make it just as likely, if not more so, that we will double down on our existing narratives, that we will with little thought simply force new information into existing stories however inadequate they may be. We will be tempted to obscure or ignore the inconsistencies and contradictions. We will likely become all the more defensive when we are challenged, perpetuating cycles of outrage and denouncements.

There is a better path, one that may lead toward justice and healing, but it is a path that demands certain virtues of those that would take it: humility, patience, and courage. Humility is required to acknowledge that we may be wrong, not only about the facts but even with regards to the framing story. Patience is required to abide the uneasiness and anxiety occasioned by conflict and crisis without immediately defaulting to our existing assumptions. In other words, we need the humility to admit that we have something to learn and the patience to undergo the education. And we require courage because it is no small thing to face the prospect adapting or revising the stories that have been so central to our own identity.

Finally, while our current media environment tacitly demands that we speak often and forcefully, it may be wiser for us to occasionally remain silent so that we might listen.

Just as there is an art to speaking, so is there an art of listening. Which is to say that listening well does not come naturally, it requires practice and cultivation. Learning to listen well also requires us to set resist the temptations of reductionism and oversimplification. In the midst of crisis, when we may feel overwhelmed by circumstances, we are tempted to quickly dissolve the complexity into comfortable and familiar formulas and categories. But to the degree that we obscure complexity, we also obscure the truth and we block the path to justice and healing.


Study Center Resources

Pascal’s is open for both online ordering and dine-in service. Please do feel free to spread the word that we are open and ready to serve.

In this week’s Dante reading group, we will be covering cantos 14-6 of the Inferno. If you’d like to connect with group, please email Mike Sacasas at mike@christianstudycenter.org.

Be sure to check out the archive of resources available online from the study center. Classes and lectures are available at our audio archive. You can also peruse back issues of Reconsiderations here.


Recommended Reading

— Christian historian Jemar Tisby reflects on “The Familial Language of Black Grief”:

“Even with people we do not know or whom we barely know, black people can generally relate to the experience of being policed not just by law enforcement, but by anyone deemed white. Police brutality feels like a problem that is both very old and freshly personal every time it happens. We feel the pain and loss of black life as if it were our very own blood that had been brutalized—because it easily could have been.”

— Matthew Loftus reflects on “Justice and Race” in Comment:

“White Christians can easily fall into asinine tropes about how the reconciling power of love will ‘overcome racial divisions.’ One can over-spiritualize the subject, calling for vague measures while neglecting crucial policy concerns. However, we must take care not to under-spiritualize matters either. If, as William Stringfellow has said, racism is a demonic power, then we should not underestimate how important prayer and the reconciling work of the church will be to overcoming it. The church of Jesus Christ, which throughout its history has often worked to perpetuate racial harm, has the opportunity to redress those harms in its battle with white supremacy.

I mention prayer specifically not only because dealing with racism is spiritual warfare but also because individuals and church communities in North America ought to pray about how they should be involved in racial justice.”

— Alan Jacobs reflects on race, policing, and COVID-19:

“We shouldn’t conflate the sudden onset of COVID–19 and the endless tension that arises from walking, or doing anything else, while black. But keeping them conceptually distinct, we can still see them as have this essential thing in common: they attack the bodies of black Americans, they attack the social body that is Black America.

Those of us who are white don’t know much, firsthand, about that chronic affliction. But you know, while the coronavirus itself might be acute, For all of us concern about it has become chronic. Buying groceries probably won’t make us ill. But it might. And if we get ill, we probably won’t die. But we might. It’s a non-trivial possibility. We’re learning how to live at tiptoe stance. Our nerves are fraying after just a few months. Imagine what it would be like to live this way all our lives long.”