The Most Important Story

We humans. We love to tell stories. Maybe we have to tell stories.

I love stories, especially books. I read as much as I possibly can. These days, that’s not a lot. One or two books a month, three if I’m on a roll. I used to blaze through books in one or two days, always hungry for the next. I am attempting to retain and cultivate my attention after the ravages of pregnancy and newborn care, and I may never again have the kind of time I had as a bored child devouring the entire YA and adult science fiction sections of the library.

Consuming stories fuels their creation. I used to tell stories to myself, writing Star Wars fan fiction on a computer as a 12 year old kid wishing and imagining that she could be someone else. I learned, as an older child, to tell stories out loud, to connect with people and to pull more stories out of them.

I’ve realized that I tell myself a story about myself and who I am today, and that present self is the inevitable closure of the narrative that form unbidden in my mind. In my mind, I am who I am today because I experienced these five (let’s say) critical story arcs, crucibles of personality, and personal crises. But the amount of things I’ve experienced in my life – the perceptions available to me, the interactions with others, and the emotions I’ve felt – these are countless. I will have countless more, and be changed in endless unimaginable ways. I must sort through all this data to make sense of my life so far. I do the same with my family and friends. I think I understand the Most Important Things to know about them – the things that make them comprehensible to me as people. But their versions of those Most Important Things are undoubtedly different from mine.

I think we are all telling stories, all the time, to one another and to ourselves. Our perception of current events fits into that story that we are telling ourselves, and our reaction to those events depends solely on the meaning we give them within that story. It is important to remind ourselves that our version of the story is necessarily incomplete, and it is not necessarily constructed with accurate information. When we talk with others about current events, our feelings about them, or what we think world leaders ought to do, we can experience the influence of others’ stories on our own as our opinions slightly shift, or our perspectives slightly expand to account for new facts or a new, valuable perspective. Or we may feel the need to shore up our perception against theirs, if the discussion shows us holes or inconsistencies in our stories. (If it’s any good as a conversation, that is.)

One of the reasons social media is so maddening is that it requires that a personal, verbal storytelling style – what you might use to talk to your best friend or work acquaintance about what’s happening in Syria – be paired with the open-ended proclamations and assertions of a medium written for publication. The stories that we tell ourselves about our shared lives and experiences overlap and clash with those of our family, friends, and acquaintances. Seeing our thoughts and stories in print like this does not have the softness of a conversation.  It commits us to a hardened moral judgment: my story is right.

Some argue that social media is just information, most of it useless. Maria Popova talks about this in her article on Brain Pickings, her site, called “Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers”:

“Once again echoing Walter Benjamin’s wise discrimination between storytelling and information, Sontag considers the two contrasting models ‘competing for our loyalty and attention’:

‘There is an essential … distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have, as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.’”

Sontag argues that television presents information, fragmented by commercials and never-ending plots, while novels present stories. Popova likens this to the commercial internet today.

Certainly experiencing other people’s stories is a different experience entirely when it happens on social media or on television, disrupted as those media are by commercial interests and curtailed by limits on available time and space. But they are stories, clashing and overlapping and poorly told, in many cases, but narratives with a purpose in the telling, nonetheless. I think we as humans are incapable of presenting or receiving information without narrative. If there isn’t one there, we make one up. We process all data into stories, and we perceive a coherent plot arc where there is none. We assume that there is a shared story, but every person’s experience and perception of that story is different, because so much is happening at once.

As Sontag says (from Popova’s article),

“To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.”

I would argue that we all have the moral and ethical responsibility that Sontag bestows upon novelists: to make a choice about the stories we disseminate into the world. Words – particularly written words – are endlessly powerful. Our position in history grants us the unprecedented platform to commit our words to print before an audience of peers. If we want to write – and I assert that even a short social media post counts – we need to start with the wisdom and humility required to stretch the nets of our attention, to recognize the weighty moral judgment we are making by writing this story, and not that story. Be mindful with our attention, and be aware that we can never mind everything, all at once – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.


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