Who Are We Telling Our Story To?

February 5, 2012

Who do we think we’re telling the story of ourselves to? Do other people live, as I do, with the vague sense that the story of my life is performed in front of a witness other than myself?

In my case, I wonder, is it some notion of God? Is it a residue structure from early childhood, when my mother knew all? A close friend of mine lost her husband, also a dear friend, just over a year ago and it seems clear among many other things, he was the one witnessing her life.

Are we telling our story to the collective? Humans are so tuned in to each other. We have evolved to pick up and interpret vast networks of subtle signs from one another and, whether in the foreground or background, we are always plugged into the collective discourse we’re engaged in with each other.

Does anyone manage to live without the sense of an audience, even if that audience is only some component of the self, or a person who is no longer alive, or the residue of a belief in God? What is this act of telling stories to each other? Mike Leigh’s brilliant, deceptively plain, film, Another Year, deals with who listens to whose story and what the telling and the listening mean in the relationships between the characters. What are we doing when we tell our story to each other?

There will be elements of self-justification and self-aggrandizement, the infantile ego getting its cheap thrills, the teller seeking buy-in from the audience, agreement on the legitimacy of the story. This will increase the teller’s sense of control over their life, that there is agreement about a shared reality. Human beings rely on each other for our very survival, so ostracization from the group can mean more than heartache, it can mean death to the individual. Having one’s audience agree with one’s narrative, being able to tell a story in a way that your audience nods in agreement, being able to convince others of one’s personal truth, can be a matter of life and death. Think of living in a society where opposition to those with political power results in death, or being on trial in a country with the death penalty, or being a woman in a society where adultery is sentenced with death, or a life of grinding poverty, or making your case to a health insurance company for access to an expensive life-saving treatment.

There is an aspect of telling our story that seeks to control or influence the world outside us, but there is also a side that seeks input and connection with the world outside ourselves, that seeks confirmation that the world is what we think it is. At best perhaps, when we tell our stories, the great story of our “self”, we are curious and hopeful to hear back, to share a story, to join our story with others, to pass our story down to the next generation, not just because we want that smidgeon of immortality, that fleeting continuation of the ego, but because our story may contribute to the larger story of our family, our tribe, our species, and even whatever enterprise or wonder our species may be part of.