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The role of stories

Humanist philosopher Richard Norman describes the way fictional stories can help us to make sense of our lives

Suppose you set out to give a minute-by-minute account of your life – got up today, went to the bathroom, got dressed, put the kettle on… Even if it could be done (which it can’t), it would make no sense. It would just be an incoherent mass of detail. To give a meaningful account of a life, or of anything, we have to select. Now consider this selection of events from someone’s life:

‘As a boy he was mad about football. At the age of 18 he suffered a serious motorbike accident. The following year he got married. He had a successful career as a potter.’
It looks as though there could be a connection between those selected items – but what? Suppose the connections were made like this:
‘As a boy he was desperate to become a professional footballer, but his hopes were crushed when at 18 he lost his legs in a motorbike accident. For a year he was in despair, but during his long stay in hospital he fell in love with a nurse who gave him new hope, by encouraging him to develop other talents. She herself enjoyed pottery as a hobby. He married her and with her tireless support he had a successful career as a professional potter.’

Now we’ve made significant connections. We’ve told a story about his life which makes sense, and which gives it a shape and a meaning.

That’s what stories do – they enable us to make sense of our lives. And it’s why the stories we read and hear – in books, films, plays, TV dramas – can be so powerful. They give us patterns, templates with which to make sense of our own lives by giving a shape to them, learning how to tell a story about them.

We can learn this from real-life biographies, but it is done especially powerfully through works of fiction in which a great writer can evoke and capture a certain pattern of experience. It’s what all great works of art do. A piece of music can give a shape to our emotions. A song can sum up a certain kind of feeling. A feeling can give a shape to our visual experience, enabling us to see a landscape or a human face in a new way. But when we’re trying to make sense of our lives as a whole, it’s stories, above all, that we draw on – the repertoire of stories which we inherit, beginning with fairy tales and children’s stories, and then the novels and films exploring romantic love and falling out of love, failure and redemption, loss and grief and consolation.

There is another important role which such stories play. They not only help us to make sense of our own lives. They also enable us to understand other people’s lives and experiences. And again, though this can be conveyed through real-life biographies and histories, it can be done especially powerfully in works of fiction which vividly evoke kinds of experience different from our own. Think of war novels – the writing of the First World War, for instance, captures what it was like to be in the trenches. It tells us a story not of military glory and heroism, but of mud and squalor, of boredom and endurance and senseless slaughter. It tells us what it is like to listen to the dying words of the enemy you have killed. It is a kind of experience which many of us can barely imagine, but the novels and the films help us to do so.

Or think of novels, films, and plays which evoke social worlds remote from our own. They may tell us what it was like to be a slave on the plantations, or a factory worker in the mills, or what it is like to be a refugee, or an immigrant, and to endure prejudice, hostility, and humiliation. Coming to see what that might be like is a vital step in our moral sensitivity. Stories can foster our capacity for imaginative identification with others. There’s no guarantee that they will do so, but they can be the beginning of empathy, compassion, and a sense of justice.

Here are two important roles played by stories, then. They give a shape to experience, thereby helping us to make sense of our own lives. And they convey what it is like to have a certain kind of experience. In these ways, we can say, they give us a form of understanding, a kind of knowledge. It is not scientific knowledge. It does not provide theories or causal explanations. But it is equally vital.

Question: How do stories enrich the human experience?

© Humanists UK
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Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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