Friday, August 17, 2012

Storytelling in an Age of Information

Some years ago my father told me a story. I asked him why someone didn't cry at a funeral we had attended. He replied with this story. A farm woman living out in the west came back from a trip to town to find her family dead--her children in the house, her husband outside. She could do nothing but bury them, and she did so, working all day. When she went into the barn she found the cow dead. At the sight of the poor dumb animal, she broke down and cried and cried. He ended this story with the explanation that "sometimes it's easier to cry over something small than something big."

Someone else might interpret this story differently. Perhaps the woman just needed that one more little push to break open her stoicism. Or perhaps she saw her last chance of survival dead on the barn floor. Or perhaps she was physically exhausted and tears were the result. One interpretation isn't right and the others wrong. The point of the story isn't my father's explanation or anyone else's. The point of the story is the way it stimulates each listener to think about why a farm woman would react as she did. The story pushes us to grow by thinking and considering the life of another.

I began to think about this recently while reading an essay by Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov" (1933) in which the author laments the decline in the art of story telling. Our world is awash in information, he points out, which is distinct from and, perhaps, antithetical to storytelling. The essay is thoughtful and provocative.

But the most intriguing part for me is a story he relates from Herodotus's Histories. Herodotus tells the story of the Egyptian king Psammenitus, who was defeated by the Persian king Cambyses, who wanted to humiliate his rival. He forced Psammenitus to watch as his son and daughter were paraded among the prisoners on their way to be executed or enslaved. Psammenitus stood stoically by, showing no emotion. When he saw an old man who had been one of his servants paraded by, the defeated king broke into loud mourning. Readers over the centuries have offered a variety of explanations for the king's behavior.

I don't think my father knew his story went all the way back to the Greeks. I certainly didn't. He had always been one to tell stories--sitting around the dinner table in the evening, among friends, or to his children when the time seemed right. I used to think the greatest compliment he ever paid me was right after I had told the family a story. I thought he would comment on how curious the behavior was of the people in the story, but instead he said, "That's a good story."

In some cultures people don't confront each other when something has gone wrong between them--they tell a story. And they do this for a very good reason. In India, life is crowded. No one can afford to be in conflict with others all the time, but each one needs a way to assert himself or herself. A story opens the heart and the mind, and nudges the listener to reconsider behavior.

My father belonged to a generation long before television, and even regular radio nights. His family sat around telling stories and jokes in the evening. His greatest gift was teaching me to tell stories, passing on a tradition that gave people pleasure but also gave them something more--a chance to learn and to glean wisdom from hearing about others and their circumstances.

When writers talk about trying to tell a good story, this is partly what they mean. There is no one interpretation, only an experience captured that is true to life and to human feeling. We are awash in information, as Benjamin so unhappily declares, and most of it forgettable the minute we hear it. What we really need is to be enveloped in stories, overheard experiences that can make us larger than we are and more able to live in the world.