Oh! The Stories We Tell

A few weeks ago a friend and I were walking down a street in mid-town NYC. It was an ordinary muggy summer day, on an ordinary dirty New York City

  • PublishedAugust 30, 2012

A few weeks ago a friend and I were walking down a street in mid-town NYC. It was an ordinary muggy summer day, on an ordinary dirty New York City street, filled with the ordinary sounds of cab drivers honking impatiently, and the ordinary never ending waves of speed walking New Yorkers grasping cell phones, Starbucks mugs and a relentless mission to get somewhere. As I said, just an ordinary day…

While crossing the street our attention was drawn to the sound of two female voices bickering audibly in the middle of the block. A mere disagreement, a miscommunication between strangers, a confrontation over shared history? Who knows what could have stimulated their aggravation. Either way, it was pretty funny, but pretty ordinary, watching two grown women bickering on the streets of a clearly ordinary neighborhood. They bickered, we chuckled and everyone continued on with their ordinary day, as you do here in New York when you become accustomed to the ordinary antics of all the ordinarily crazy New Yorkers.

Fast-forward a couple of days later, where we were enjoying a relaxed Sunday brunch with some friends visiting from Texas. I mentioned how funny it is when you see women arguing in public, as opposed to men, which can be scary or downright dangerous. The words had barely left my tongue when my friend, the one I was with on that ordinary day, proclaimed, “Ohhh, let me tell you what happened! You guys missed some SERIOUS drama!” and launched into one of the most epic, fanciful tales I’ve had the recent pleasure of hearing.

He started by describing the mellow, cobbled streets we were at and the bevy of beautiful shoppers surrounding us, describing it akin to a scene in a black and white Parisian film (I didn’t recall cobbles or beautiful shoppers, but ok). He then went on to describe the “SUDDEN shrieks!” of two scantily clad women, and the onslaught of curse words (I’m pretty sure the women were dressed ordinarily and I didn’t hear any cursing, but alright). He could barely pause for breath as he feverishly went on:

“And the big girl said, ‘OH NO YOU DIDN’T. He is MY MAN!!!’ then the other girl threw her phone, her PHONE at her!! Then the big girl just catapulted on top of her, she just shoved her body right into the other one!!! Then all you could see were arms flying EVERYWHERE, hair being pulled in all directions and screams like they were about to KILL each other!!! Then they started to just rip each other’s clothes, I swear the small one almost tore open the big ones shirt!!!! It was mad!! I think one of them even took their high heels off; she was on the verge of STABBING her, you guys!!! Then suddenly all these people started surrounding them, trying to hold them back, because seriously yo, these girls were going to KILL each other!! Then the cops pulled up and it took like five, FIVE, police officers to hold these girls back!!! You could see the cops struggling to control them while they were still screaming ‘I’m gonna mess you up! You ain’t never coming close to my man!!!’….”

Everyone at the table, myself included, sat motionless, staring at my friend, hanging onto his words, eagerly awaiting the much-desired conclusion to this thrilling tale. “Sooooo…what happened?” someone asked. “Well, y’know, the cops, like, held them back, think they threatened to arrest them or something….but eventually they were calmed down…but seriously, these women were about to KILL each other, it was crraazzyy!!!”

For a moment there I was shaking my head in shock and awe, like the rest of the people at the table, thinking what a crazy thing to see! Then I thought, wait a minute…is he talking about the same day where we saw the two girls bickering on the street? Were him and I looking at the same situation? Maybe the heat affected my vision and memory, and I’m failing to recall the phone throwing and hair pulling. But surely I would have remembered the cops being there…I’m a missing something here?

In all fairness my dear friend is a very zealous and dramatic character. He is extremely talented at making a mundane trip to the grocery store sound like a heroic, life-changing journey that will bring you to tears. Granted, when faced with both versions of the event, mine – ‘two women bickering in the middle of the street’ – and Mr. Drama Queen’s version – ‘two women about to KILL each other with phones and high heels in the middle of a posh neighborhood all over a philandering man!!!’ – it’s pretty clear which version we’d all prefer to hear about.

Though while his embellishments to the actual situation were a tad bit over the top, I was more intrigued by this fantastic story he created. Watching Mr. Drama Queen in action, his animated face simultaneously conveying horror and delight, and feeling the energy disperse from his unpredictably flailing arms, it hit me how profoundly attuned, yet vulnerable we are to the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell each other.

It goes without saying that storytelling is one of the oldest arts in human history and that it is deeply ingrained in us all as a form of communicating, understanding and learning. Stories help explain ‘why’ and ‘how’, ‘what if’ and ‘then so’. Stories help us make sense of complex facts, rationalize irrational behavior and most of all, empathize and feel closer to our fellow human beings. (‘Oh, there was a guy cheating on both of them? Yeah, I would be angry too!’)

Yet a story, by definition ‘an account or recital of an event or a series of events, either true or fictitious, is much more than a mode of communication; early cave paintings tell stories of hunting and conflict; all religions, at their core, are based on stories; solving crimes involves creating a plausible narrative from the evidence available; our brains even weave stories from memory and fiction while we sleep.

But why? In the book ‘The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human’ author Jonathan Gottschall relates studies that show how our brains react identically to an emotion or experience, regardless of whether we are reading about that experience, watching someone else go through it, or experiencing it ourselves. As our brains don’t differentiate between reality and ‘story’, Gottschall goes on to argue that the act of storytelling is intrinsic to humans because it allows us to ‘act out’ or experience things without the inherent perils involved. Hence, storytelling creates a safe environment for us to practice, to experience a multitude of dangers and conflicts without having to actually experience them.

This makes sense in retrospect, as at the heart of every story lies some form of tension, conflict, overcoming obstacles, or as I like to say, a whole lotta’ drama. And as our brains adapt when exposed to repeated experience, recurring exposure to these kind of fictional occurrences can actually help our brain learn how to deal with them if or when they occur in reality. If I tell you the exact spot where Uncle George was eaten by a crocodile and describe how it happened, you will learn not to go to that spot in the river without the risk of getting eaten by a crocodile. More importantly, now you know how to behave if you encounter your boyfriend’s other lover. Be sure to have some high-heels on for best results.

I am whole-heartedly all for stories, the crazier they are the better. As a writer and marketer my livelihood is based around stories, creating them, manipulating them to compel you to listen, buy something, like something, feel something. This very magazine takes pride in telling stories of hope, courage, success and inspiration. And did you catch that sneaky thing I did creating an elaborate story to tell you the story of my friend telling a story?

But could our dependence on stories and storytelling become a crutch or at worst, a weapon? Are we even aware of half of the stories we tell ourselves and believe in, and do we even care whether or not they’re based on fact or fiction? What difference does it make if the cops did or did not show up to calm those infamous bickering women, it’s still a great story right?

Then there are those stories we may become habituated to, which play on automatic without doubts or concerns. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, marriage, babies, etc, etc. Or poor African American male rises from the ashes of the ghetto, works hard to get into college and defy all odds to become a successful businessman. Or African teenager comes to America, dazzled, confused, shocked and mystified by elements of a first-world, ‘civilized’ society, yearns to go back home to the simple life that involved eating with fingers and running around shirtless.

The problem is, real life dramas don’t work quite that way. Sometimes, and this may surprise you, life actually isn’t dramatic. Sometimes a trip to the grocery store is just that – a trip to the grocery store. No cops running us down, no soul mates to bump into, and most definitely no winning lottery tickets. Just a carton of milk and eggs. Or sometimes it is dramatic just in unexpected ways. Sometimes boy doesn’t meet girl, but boy meets boy, boy falls in love with boy, boy and boy live happily ever after. Sometimes the African teenager is already well aware and adapted to ‘Western civilization’ and actually didn’t grow up eating with fingers.

More often than not the narratives we construct are oversimplifications, which can lead us to believe we know more than we do. As a result we are not actually making sense of the world with our narratives but creating nonsense, fictitious illusions that sound good but are just that – illusions. Which is fine when we are able to separate stories and reality, but it is a whole different beast when we become thoroughly immersed in our stories.

Stories can enthrall. Stories can disappoint. Stories can captivate and annihilate. My point is this – the stories we tell and the stories we choose to believe are incredibly powerful. They can create a harmless illusion of events; they can all too easily be manipulated to distort reality, to stimulate satisfaction rather than confusion, and to deny the truth. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a very powerful thing that happens in a myriad of ways in our daily lives, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

So simply, be aware. Be conscious of what you’re conveying when telling someone else’s story and what you’re accepting when choosing to believe the stories that are fed to you. As Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie eloquently states, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

But as always, there I go over analyzing things. Sometimes a good story is just that – a good story. And man, you should have been there to witness these two women about to KILL each other with phones and high heels in the middle of a posh neighborhood all over of a philandering man! It was ccraazzyyy!!!

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