The Storied Self

Milky Way

Time comes into it.
Say it. Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.

from The Speed of Darkness
by Muriel Rukeyser

Who am I? The perennial question. We all answer that question, often many times a day. Every time you fill in a job application, or meet someone new in a social situation. If you’ve ever filled in an online questionnaire asking for details about yourself, or written up a CV. A first date and again on a second, third, and so on. You answer it by telling stories.

And it doesn’t just stop there. You are constantly refining these stories, adding detail, adjusting them according to circumstance, filtering, deleting, emphasising different portions of the story. The ever changing, multi-faceted, story of you.

Not only to you tell these stories to others, others tell them about you. And they tell them to you. A child, from the moment it she born, may hear the tale of how “Once upon a time, a baby was born who was mummy’s special little girl”. A less fortunate child may learn the story of how they ruined their mother’s life.

Then you tell the stories to yourself. Who am I? I am the man who gets excited about the prospect of visiting new places. Or I am the man who feels anxious about the idea of unfamiliar surroundings. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, psychiatrist and professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Johnson State College, tells how in Lakota culture the closest thing they had to an understanding of the ‘self’ was a concept known as nagi – the “swarm of stories that make us who we are”, each story containing a spark of the one who told it1.

When Bodhidharma went to China, he met with the Emperor. The Emperor asked Bodhidharma ‘What is the highest truth?’
Bodhidharma replied ‘Unfathomable emptiness’.
The emperor then asked, ‘Who are you?’
Bodhidharma replied, ‘I don’t know’.

Zen parable

We live multiple stories that constantly overlap the multiple stories of others. None of our stories exist independently. They shape each other and have parts in other stories. As David R. Loy observes, the stories of the slave play a subordinate role in the stories of the master2. The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term interbeing which describes how all things are profoundly interdependent. At the heart of this understanding is the realisation that we have no separate self, that we interconnected in a universe which is in a constant state of flux and change. And so too are our stories all interconnected. My stories shape, and are shaped by, the stories of everyone else I am connected to, however remotely. If Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, then to examine my life would be to become aware of the stories I am living by paying attention to them, and in doing so, taking responsibility for my growth and development as a human being. The storyteller Laura Simms recounts how Francis Harwood, an anthropologist, asked a Sioux elder why people tell stories. He answered: “In order to become human beings.” She asked, “Aren’t we human beings already?” He smiled. “Not everyone makes it.”3 It can be said that we are not fully human until we find within ourselves the stories that make us so.

A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose it’s moorings or orientation… Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger.”

Ben Okri, author

If we can regard our self as being made of this web of everchanging interdependent stories, what then of the stories we tell, and listen to? What of the folktales, myths and fairytales, the books we read and films we watch? They are no different. It all forms the web of stories of which we partake. We can inspired, or oppressed, by the stories we find in soap operas, films or books as much as we can by the stories of our friends or real life heroes.

Stories can form templates for our psyche… food for the soul, if you like. And like food, they can be of differing nutritional quality. Some might be junk, but addictive. Others can expand the spirit. Stories can help develop our mental health and resilience. Bruno Bettelheim, a psychoanalyst who was held in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, had observed in the holocaust that, “the children who had heard the true Grimm fairy tales had been prepared for the fact that someday a wolf may come to your door, and some day you may be thrown in an oven, and some day you will be lost in a forest. But, if you keep walking forward, you will discover the courage to find your way. And there will come mentors and allies and friends, and you will not only survive, you will thrive.4

The self-narration of our experience into a coherent, seamless and continuous storied self is a selective and creative process. But it is not fiction. It is a process whereby experiences are continually integrated into the complex, unfolding story we tell ourselves about where we have been and who we are5. Once we realise this, we can understand how encountering narrative in other forms assist in developing personality and self-identity. In imaginative encounter with other narratives, new worlds of possibility become open to us. We can experiment with new experience not otherwise available. Narrative theorists suggest that these experiences can actively lead to a reconfiguration of the individual’s sense of self6.

It is my firm belief, developed over many years of working with storytelling and personal development, that traditional tales, folktales, myths and legends that have been told from generation to generation, have been told for the very reason that they distill core essences of this narrative process common to all human experience. In working creatively with these tales, we are working with patterns deeply rooted in our shared psychology.

Image attribution: Seragz [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

  1. https://croakey.org/relationships-stories-and-healing-indigenous-knowledges-for-mental-health-and-wellbeing/
  2. Loy, D. R. (2010). World Is Made of Stories. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.
  3. Steve Zeitlin. “The Folklore Fundamentalist: Notes on the Politics of Storytelling.” Storytelling, Self, Society, vol. 11, no. 1, 2015, pp. 28–33. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.13110/storselfsoci.11.1.0028.
  4. Bettelheim, B. (2011). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Vintage Books.
  5. Donald, M. (2001). A mind so rare: The evolution of human consciousness. New York: W.W. Norton.
  6. Sumara, D. J. (2011). Why reading literature in school still matters: Imagination, interpretation, insight. New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.

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