A unique characteristic of humans (as far as we know) is our ability to create stories. Some scholars suggest the invention of fire-making was a major contribution to our evolution, particularly because campfires were a focal point for gathering people and inspiring communication between them. Cultural knowledge was shared through story, advancing our development as a species, and becoming central to our existence.
Stories are part of our daily lives without us even noticing. We fuel up in the morning with coffee, toast and the morning news, now more often seen on Google updates than old-fashioned newsprint. We head off to work listening to musical anecdotes on our car radios. Greeting our co-workers, we exchange tales of what we did since we saw them last. Office politics, serving customers, analyzing data, and working together creating a product all involve interactions that use stories (fiction or non-fiction, as the case may be) to impart information. Arriving home, we are greeted with an invitation to become narrators ourselves: “Hi Honey, how was your day?”
Traditionally, the supper table is a place to share these everyday adventures, fostering familial bonding and providing the opportunity for teaching our offspring. The campfire still makes an occasional appearance, in the form of candlelight during special evening meals, such as birthdays and Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the modern-day trend for social over-commitment has meant the loss of this daily communication for some families. Serious negative outcomes result from this inability to share daily stories with our nearest and dearest. Children need regular opportunities to tell, and be validated for, their own stories.
Kids spend their days learning to navigate personal interactions with the help of stories, including the humorous varieties: tall tales, jokes, and the most efficient story form — puns. Schoolchildren experiment with these challenging story structures, while being forced to absorb our cultural stories, such as math and social studies.
Arising from the dinner table, we may settle in front of a screen to be entertained by visual plots, before we tuck the little ones in at night with a fairytale and head off to sleep ourselves, after putting our novel down on the bedside table. Even as we slumber, our brains are creating fantastical scenarios, a necessary human state we have yet to fully understand. Stories are fundamental to all aspects of our day-to-day lives.
Stories are also vital to us on a larger timescale. For example, seasons inspire the sharing of stories. At this time of year, especially, many have become a tradition (sometimes accompanied by a modernist digitally-broadcast fireplace). Perhaps this is because the increasing darkness triggers our primordial fears and causes us to cheer each other with tales of hope and goodwill.
Encompassing an interval of many years is the genre of biography, which attempts to arrange the experiences of each individual into meaningful messages. Exceeding the span of a single life, we enter the realm of history. First in scale is the family genealogy, and the greater lengths of time fall within the formal domain of History. Once we are beyond the range of written documents, we enter the purview of archaeology, which tries to reconstruct the stories of ancient human culture, right back to the invention of the first blaze that ignited our intellect and gave us the gift of story.
During this dark winter season, I wish you all the best and encourage you to gather by the fireplace to celebrate the human story with those you love.
This article was originally printed in The Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.