Last week I found an old college notebook and on one of the pages was this quotation from Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea:
A man is always a teller of tales. He lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.
Stories are nets we throw over reality to shape and tame it. Some stories have repeatable results: we call those stories “science.” Others make us see higher, deeper, and better than we could have seen on our own; we call those “art.” Others explain life, the universe, and everything else; we call those “religion.” Some stories give us respite and escape; those are entertainment. There are as many stories as there are people to tell them.
There was a scene in the movie Argo where some airport security thugs were enthralled for a few minutes by a man who used storyboards to tell them a tale that they wanted to hear. This scene surely was false to the reality of the escape, but it is true to the power of stories. They work that way.
I believe we are hardwired for story. Think of it. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a story. So is the 23rd Psalm. Every ad tells a story, the purpose of which is to get you to buy what the ad is selling. The adage “change your thoughts, change your life” is another way to say “learn to tell yourself new stories.”
Stories and violence
Do violent stories cause violent behavior? Good lord, no. Imagine how we would live if they did, with nine guns for every ten US citizens and supersized portions of violence and cruelty dished up every day in entertainment and the news. We would have to abandon public life entirely.
Never mind schools—people would not gather in public anywhere. No libraries or town meetings, no malls, no businesses, no bars or restaurants, no grocery stores. No movies, no shows. What provisions we needed we would order online, and these would be delivered by people wearing body armor, with an armed guard always present (remember: they are afraid of you, too). We would work at home. We would put on armor like we put on coats, and carry weapons always when we went out. If we went out.
A few businesses might survive. They would have TSA-like security at the door, and patrons could shop or eat or be entertained in the shadow of a banner saying “This is what makes us free.” Think of a combination of a police state and a lunatic asylum.
No, violent stories don’t cause violent behavior. A steady diet of stories that glorify and sanitize destruction (by “sanitize” I mean that it is consequence free; the violence goes over a cliff into the ether) would never turn me into someone who murders innocent people. I’d kill myself first, not last. But suppose you are the kind of person for whom those stories do take. Suppose there is a cancer inside—never mind where it came from—that grows because it is fed these stories. Cancer cells need food, the same as anything else alive. They can be starved, too.
It’s a lock and key relationship, the one between who you are and the stories that shape you. Some take. Others do not. Two people see the same movie and have opposite reactions. What is thrilling for one is boring for another and vice versa. This is not news.
I think mass murderers almost always commit suicide afterward because they know that reality is coming fast. And they won’t like the story it has to tell.
Do you think stories have no effect on you? Think again. When you watch television, what shows do you choose? What about movies? Books? Games? And don’t stop with fiction. Has a news story ever gotten to you? Why? What about the stories told by relatives, coworkers, bosses, neighbors, friends, and enemies?
When someone says “that’s the way I roll,” what are they talking about? We live and die by stories.