When I was four years old, I attended a church-based preschool in a small town in Minnesota. My parents carpooled with friends from the neighborhood, and because of this arrangement it was rare that my father dropped me off at school. One day, however, he had to drop me off late, which gave him the chance to see what my daily routines were like. After tossing my bag in a cubby, I waltzed into the classroom, smacked my teacher on her rather large rump and called out, “How ya doin’, Mrs. Phlesch?” Clearly a regular occurrence, the teacher responded gently if not in defeat, “I’m fine, Esther, but we don’t hit people to say hello”. My father was mortified.
I tell this story with delight because it demonstrates that from an early age I was comfortable and a little rebellious towards authority, that I knew how to make an entrance, and that I could get away with quite a bit of sass. I share this story with friends now as a way of weaving these attributes into my personality and character as an adult. This story explains parts of me, not only to others, but also to myself.
Truthfully, however, I don’t remember any of this happening. I’m not even sure that how I tell the story now is how my father told the story – I might have the context wrong, or have added or removed important details. Certain parts, like the amount Mrs. Phlesch’s fleshiness, might have grown over the years. I don’t really care, though, because this story and the way that I tell it are part of my identity. Regardless of the details being factual, there are nuggets in the story of when I spanked a teacher that have grown into part of my understanding of self. As Stephen Colbert might say, it rings of truthiness, even if it doesn’t ring true.
Shaping Our Selves; Shaping Our Community
This is a rather light example of something that we do every day, and something that humans have done since before we evolved into Homo sapiens. Story is a powerful tool, used to build up our identities, both personal and communal. We share stories to convey our understanding of the universe and our place in it, our strengths and weaknesses and growth. We are natural editors – our stories are not objective recalls of a previous event. For many of us, learning to share stories with others is how we begin to understand ourselves. We craft our identities through sharing our stories. I do not always give a completely accurate depiction of myself or events; I remind myself of the commendable parts of me, and I encourage myself to grow into attributes that I want to foster. I can set myself up to be who I want to be, and then strive towards it. I can also use these stories to think through or justify my actions , to explain shortcomings or to uncover where it all began. Over time, and over countless recitations, our stories – specifically how we tell the story of ourselves – helps us to craft our identity. As our understanding of self changes, it’s only natural that the way we tell the stories of our selves change, too. The way I tell the above story in twenty years might be different from how I share it today.
We also do this as communities, whether they are communities based on geography, culture, philosophy, religion, ethnicity, or anything else. We tell foundational myths and legends through the years and they become ingrained in our sense of belonging. Through these communal stories, we are able to take part in group history, place ourselves within the group as it moves into the future. We connect past intentions to future destiny, create traditions, and draw boundaries. These stories help to establish societal order, are used to teach the young about how society works and why we may do certain things differently than other people.
Ultimately, our individual identities are forged alongside our understanding of our community. In The Social Conquest of the Earth, Edward O. Wilson describes how human beings evolved to be social, to sacrifice for the community, and to care for one another in ways that are almost entirely unique in evolutionary history and in many ways challenge our naive understandings of “survival of the fittest”. Human beings are wired to identify with a community, and are reliant on social relationships to develop a full sense of self. If we did not need to share ourselves with others, we may not care so much about what makes up “me” or “you”. Our sense of social identity is what has allowed us to come as far as we have, but it is also at the root of our wars, great and small.
Dangerous Degrees of Wiggle Room
Storytelling is essential to identity formation, and there are degrees of wiggle room in terms of truth allowed when sharing stories that help us to define our identity. There is also a great danger here, particularly in how we demonize or exclude others, draw harsh distinctions that may not exist, or claim something to be “the way it’s always been” rather than looking at the way something could be.
Some of history’s greatest propaganda campaigns were built on excellent storytelling; it’s easier to galvanize the troops with an inspirational story than it is with cold facts. We often fall into the trap of nostalgia, selectively remembering and recounting but choosing to leave out the difficult bits and the harsher memories. We may choose to glorify “the good old days” that weren’t actually all that good for everyone, over progressing into a new age and better future. While this is dangerous for individuals it is far more dangerous on a communal level. When we mythologize our history, it can be hard to keep track of how much is truth, how much is truthiness, and how much is fiction. Because we pass down our communal identity through stories, it is essential that we are telling stories with room for growth, demonstrations of hospitality and humility, and allowing space for those communities to change over time.
Stories are powerful. They help us discover and create who we are and where we are going. We need to understand their impact in order to use them to help us grow into healthier, happier, versions of ourselves. There is a lot of excellent work available on the history and psychological purpose of storytelling, including The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathon Gottschall among others.
Instead of rehashing that work, or attempting to convince you of something you do every day, I challenge you to think about how we can harness the power of affirmative storytelling for healing, re-building, and self-improvement. And then share what you’ve learned with someone else – tell them a story.
Esther Boyd (Editor, Yale University) Esther is a humanist celebrant working in multifaith chaplaincy at Johns Hopkins University. She holds an M.A. in Religion and Literature from Yale, where she focused on religious identity, and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Colby College where she studied American religious nationalism. She works primarily with multifaith education and religious literacy with high school, college, and graduate students, but has also created curriculum materials for interfaith leadership training. While at Yale, she founded Yale Divinity School’s humanist interfaith student cooperative, Open Party. Esther is also the Communications Director for State of Formation.