Wednesday, November 19, 2008
THE IMPORTANCE OF NARRATIVES
Story-telling is a lost art. Out on the Trail, with no distractions around and only a campfire to stare at (we called it “Hippy TV”), hikers depended on stories and good conversation for entertainment. The best thing about story-telling is that it really requires two people – the person telling the story is important of course – but the listener is just as important. It’s in the listener’s head, fueled by imagination, that any story comes alive. The storyteller can supply just the thinnest of details, but within the listener’s head, the faces of characters and look of the settings become realized. It’s too bad that in regular life, people are too often content to simply be talked at for entertainment. Television especially ruins the story experience – you sit down on the couch and are talked to and shown all the action and there is rarely any participation required from the viewer. Just sit and absorb the simplistic tales, clichéd characters, and of course 30% advertising. How often will you sit and watch two hours of TV and then not remember anything of what you just watched? In trail life, even mundane tales and bad story-telling become memorable. This is important too – because stories are how we learn about the world, pass on our traditions, and explore ourselves. Everyone can remember the short tales of our youth and the lessons that were either obvious. (I once spent a whole evening with other hikers recalling Aesop’s Fables and their little summary lessons for fun.) But it works for adults too. Since humans started using language millions of years ago, we told stories to each other: about the animals we followed for food, the constellations that mark the seasons, the examples of famous heroes and heroines, and even stories about the world’s creation. Stories are still meaningful today, despite (and perhaps due to) the distractions of modern life. One of the reasons Obama was such a compelling candidate and McCain was not, was because Obama consistently portrayed his would-be presidency as continuing the story of America. That story – our founding break from tyrrany and our ever-upward motion towards equality and freedom and opportunity, a country that always has the power to reinvent itself in the name of progress – is a very compelling narrative. It is baked into every American’s sense of self, and that view of our history has always had appeal across the globe. As a result, Obama’s election was very emotional for so many people. It was an amazing experience to ride across North Philly after watching the returns at a friend’s house and see hundreds of people pouring into the streets to celebrate. The next day, it was like another Phillies victory - the whole city felt proud to be re-born Americans. (As my friend Frank pointed out, I got back in time for Red October and Blue November – too bad for us Iggles fans it’s not looking like a Green December.) Pretty electrifying, but since narratives are so memorable, it sets up some pretty high expectations for the new President.