Storytelling has been identified as the unit of human understanding. It occupies a central place in early development and learning about the world, oneself, and one’s place in it. A critical function of the dominant left hemisphere of the brain is to continually make up stories about why things are the way they are, which becomes our understanding of the world. Stories are a way of putting disparate pieces of information into a unified context. As we grow, the drama of stories enliven us and the narrative structure tells us something about how things are and how things should be, whether we are listening to Big Bird’s take on life or Garrison Keillor’s tales of Lake Wobegon.
Stories remain central to understanding well after childhood. When people make judgments about right and wrong, even in politics or the jury box, they often do so as a result of a story that they construct about events that have happened. […] It’s just human nature.
I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately–those we tell, those we remember, those we believe, and those we feel compelled to challenge and rewrite. As Stuart Brown highlights above, stories are the key unit of understanding in human life. We look up at the sky and feel compelled to connect the stars with imaginary lines. Yet, the dangers of becoming too wrapped up in a single story are very real. If we are only able to view human identity–our own and that of others–through a single lens, we run the risk of falling prey to essentialism and a complete breakdown of any opportunity for empathy and true human connection.
The insistence, if only implicitly, on a choiceless singularity of human identity not only diminishes us all, it also makes the world much more flammable. The alternative to the divisiveness of one preeminent categorization is not any unreal claim that we are all much the same. That we are not. Rather, the main hope of harmony in our troubled world lies in the plurality of our identities, which cut across each other and work against sharp divisions around one single hardened line of vehement division that allegedly cannot be resisted. Our shared humanity gets savagely challenged when our differences are narrowed into one devised system of uniquely powerful categorization.
Perhaps the worst impairment comes from the neglect–and denial–of the role of reasoning and choice, which follows from the recognition of our plural identities.
– Amartya Sen in Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Issues of Our Time)
How do we go beyond the single story or the first story that we create about ourselves and those around us? A few weeks ago, I wrote about the power of simply asking strangers and friends about their hearts and their stories. But I really am curious, how do you think we might go about getting a better sense of the plurality and fullness of each other’s identities? As I wait for your answers, here is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 2009 TED talk, in which she poignantly addresses the perils of limiting ourselves to a single story.