We humans are the beast who records and shares the present, remembers the past, and predicts the future in narrative. We are storytellers, using the narrative’s beginning, middle, and end to order the river flood of confusion and contradiction in which we struggle to survive. Narrative is embedded in all effective writing.—Donald M. Murray, The Craft of Revision
Why is narrative so necessary to storytelling and to our species?
“Narrative is that distinctive form of human thinking by which we strive to understand ourselves and others as people who act in the world to pursue intentions that meet vicissitudes,” explain Keith Oatley, Dacher Keltner, and Jennifer M. Jenkins in Understanding Emotions.
Understanding Emotions has the human psyche this way: Conflicts cause emotions and emotions cause stories and stories extract meaning from emotions. Obviously pleasure provokes emotions, too—but pleasures end—and narrative requires conflict of this or another kind. (Dante was the great celebrator of romantic love—in his case despairingly unrequited and transformed into a narrative of suffering and transcendence.)
In contrast to narrative thinking, science uses the “paradigmatic mode,” the authors note. Of course the scientific method, a process of careful inquiry, has proved so powerful in helping us live longer and more comfortably that we’ve all become little scientists—we even call the study of our society “social science.” Perhaps this is why in this age we’re embarrassed by emotion—isn’t it primitive and weak; aren’t we supposed to be logical?
But why? Why else does the jury system exist but to insert human emotion in a competing narrative between the wretch in the dock and the pitiless science of the law? It seems that emotion is intrinsic to the matrix humans use to gauge life and what’s worthy: ideas, eateries, politicians, potential mates, house painters. Our every perception, idea, and encounter is filtered through the scrim of emotion. How we feel is important. Or at least significant. Making narratives from emotion makes us different from other animals that experience emotion but, as far as we know, don’t tell stories. (And lucky for us they don’t.)
“It seems likely,” Chapter 14 of Understanding Emotions continues, that “narrative is the principal human activity of meaning-making [their emphasis]. And this is not just turning over emotions with a therapist or friend, but reading novels and poetry, watching plays and movies, which can also, at least in some circumstances, have consciousness-raising functions. . . . In every society, in every community, in every family, a history forms, with its characters, its traditions of custom: human meanings about what we people are up to with each other.
“In such traditions, emotions and our understanding of them are the pivotal points. . . . From the earliest times to the present, it is extraordinary that at the focus of poetic, fictional, and folk-historical narratives have been the emotions.”
Why do emotions cause stories instead of scientific summary? I’d say it’s because we want others to understand, above all, how we feel. Our Paleolithic ancestors learned that emotional stories could vindicate and inspire and transport and heal. And all writers learn that showing is a more effective rhetorical strategy than summarizing because showing causes the audience to empathize and even to share emotion.
The therapeutic function of story is that by becoming conscious of our emotions we can alter them, and ourselves. “The idea that we in part create ourselves by conscious reflection” was explored by Shakespeare, who showed people pondering their own speeches and being altered, write Oatley, Keltner and Jenkins. They continue:
[O]ne difference between us and the apes is that our emotions are more intentional, more conscious. The principal way in which we become conscious—at least conscious of ourselves—is in being able to give accounts in narrative form as we confide emotional incidents. . . .
Written narrative literature, from ancient times to the present, concentrates on our emotional lives and on problematics of this kind—as if story telling and story listening have always been attempts to understand these matters. The activity is satisfying because stories provide possibilities of vicarious action, as well as pieces of solutions to the problems of how to act and how to be a person in society. Publicly available stories give members of society common exemplars of action of emotion and of responsibility. They help us to reflect on and become part of the cultural tradition in which we live.
[Emotions] tell us something is happening to which we should pay attention. Artists bring these vague feelings, the conflicts with others and within the self, the uncertainties that they represent, into awareness. . . . We have argued that the supply of therapeutic help in Western society is too limited to meet the need. But narrative, recounted, heard, and read is not in short supply in any society.
At least from Shakespeare onward, they note, becoming a whole person has involved understanding oneself in terms of a narrative of one’s life. In constructing and perhaps revising this inner narrative, we consume others’ stories, testing our own emotions in the safe arena of artistic simulation. But the authors of Understanding Emotions warn that narrative, this powerful emotional medicine, must be taken carefully:
In this imaginative space we experience emotions, not those of the characters, but our own. And just as we change somewhat when we arrive at work, or join a group of friends, or enter the office of a therapist, we may be changed when we enter a space of emotional imagination. So just as we are careful whom we choose as a friend . . . we should be judicious about what we read and what movies we see.
So. We must tell stories to explain our emotional core. We need narratives to show us how to live and how to die. And we must see lives depicted—summary won’t do—because in events are emotions, our glory and our burden. Writers revise to sharpen a story’s point and to see it in a new way. People employ therapy, art, and plain old time to become aware of their inner narratives and to see them differently, perhaps to change them. Spiritual leaders have repeatedly taught Let go of story and just be; accept your feelings without making a story of them. And yet narrative seems intrinsic and inescapable in some applications: the enlightened use a narrative to knock us free of our narratives.
Understanding Emotions underscores the necessity and inevitability and power of narrative. The stories we tell others can help them or harm them. The stories we tell ourselves can heal us or kill us.