“We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”
Yes, I plucked that quote from a cheesy Doctor Who episode. Nevertheless, I think there’s a lot of truth to unpack here. So indulge me, if you will.
I’ve been fascinated with stories for all my life. Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around being read to, and later reading myself, books about epic battles, about murder and deceit, about the lives and deaths of heroes and villains both real and fictional. And, for a short amount of time, I’ve even had a semi-professional interest in what makes a good story. But fun and innocent as it may seem, the reading, writing, or telling of stories actually is a lot more than a mere diversion for the bored mind.
On the one side, stories are key to how humankind as a whole remembers bygone eras and their protagonists. They shape the images that spring to our minds when we think of just about any historical figure, from Jesus Christ to Genghis Khan to Winston Churchill. Furthermore, the stories we craft today will define who among the contemporary political cast will be considered a hero and who a villain by future generations. But stories inevitably abstract reality, because the nuances of a complex character, their actions, and their motivations are always subject to interpretation, both by the chronicler as well as by the audience. Those who spend much of their time in the public spotlight are of course very well aware of this. Political leaders around the globe, from Xi Jinping to Queen Elisabeth II to Ursula von der Leyen to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, thus are extremely conscientious about how they present themselves in such a way that the resulting stories do reflect what’s in their best interest.
But on the other, the subjective, side, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are no less important. How the mind constructs what we perceive as reality is, for the most part, up to that little voice in our head. Did that person in that meeting interrupt you because they hold a grudge against you? Or because they were too slow-witted to follow your sophisticated argument? Or because they wanted to show off in front of the boss? Whichever story you chose to tell yourself about one and the same situation will define how you respond to that situation, and these responses and their consequences can vary widely: From plunging you into a harmful interpersonal feud, to a knowing smile and a nod, an infinite number of outcomes are on the table. Unbiased, objective decision making though is not a strength of human cognition. Or, as Shakespeare puts it in Hamlet (which, of course, is a great story itself):
“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2
I came across a particularly interesting case in point for both sides of that coin when I read about the British adventurer Maurice Wilson. Wilson is a historical figure, albeit one who attracted far less fame than those mentioned above, as well as an example for the power of storytelling. In the 1930s, the Great War veteran had set his mind on nothing less than climbing to the top of Mount Everest (a) before anyone else, (b) alone, and (c) without the financial aid provided by a formal expedition party. The fact that he had no prior mountaineering experience except what can be learned from hiking in the English countryside, no financial support, and the British government as his biggest opponent, did nothing to deter him though. The fierce determination which led Wilson closer to his goal than anyone would have thought possible was, in the end, nothing more than the product of a story he had managed to convince himself of. The details of that particular story however will never be fully uncovered. Unfortunately, Wilson ultimately had to succumb to the overwhelming challenge: He died on his final ascent to the summit, cast in snow, ice, and a lot of mysticism which would enshroud his peculiar character for decades to come.
What’s so striking about Wilson is the plethora of stories that came of his ill-fated voyage. Even Reinhold Messner who, almost 50 years after the Englishman, became the first one to actually conquer Everest alone, references him in his book Crystal Horizon. And in the intervening half century, Wilson was portrayed at different times as a religious lunatic, an eccentric who believed that fasting and prayer alone would grant him superhuman abilities, but also a transvestite, an adulterer, a spy, and many other things. But as it turns out, none of these ascriptions do the man justice. Wilson was a lot more sophisticated than the stories that were told about him would have us believe. But not until 2020, when Ed Caesar published his very thoroughly researched account The Moth and the Mountain, did anyone care to seriously examine the adventurer’s life and his motivations. It was simpler and more convenient to proliferate the stereotypical image of the fanatically driven, deranged maniac.
And here, again, we encounter an inherent danger of stories: All too easily can they be used to reduce complex circumstances into simple, preconceived stereotypes, distorting the truth until the facts neatly fit whatever pattern we wanted to see in the first place.
Some of the most compelling stories in human history, such as The Odyssey, David versus Goliath, or the life and death of Jesus himself, have, over millennia, turned into such archetypical narratives. Again and again are they instantiated, even in contemporary culture. Think of the Wachowski brothers Matrix series for example: That’s the savior narrative plucked from the New Testament right there. Or the backbone of the original Star Wars trilogy: A classic hero’s journey modeled after Homer’s Odysseus from the 8th century BCE. The fact that these ancient stories resonate so well with a modern audience is hardly a surprise—humans have been telling them in one version or another for a few thousands of years after all.
Understandably, our minds have become very accustomed to those, and a few more, stereotypical storylines. However, this tendency has a tremendous downside: Once we think we recognize one of them in the real world, we easily become blind to any facts that don’t fit the pattern. Just like for almost one hundred years the intricacies of Maurice Wilson’s life have been clouded by the simplistic narratives told about him, we’re also often quick to judge even the most complicated political events by the standards of a few, straightforward, stories. Who’s David? Who’s Goliath? Who’s the hero and who’s the villain?
Stories are immensely powerful, but their power is easy to underestimate. A good story can launch a war—just as well as it can end one. It can rally strangers around a common goal, leading to outcomes far beyond what any person alone could achieve. But it can also proliferate hatred, sectarianism, and violence. It can change whether we consider another human being a friend or a foe. Whether we will empathize with their pain and suffering and make an effort to stop it—or not. All the time, we tell ourselves stories that help us make sense of the complexity of the world. But we’re also constantly fed stories, some of which are deliberately engineered to manipulate us. We should therefore pay very close attention whenever we find ourselves drawn to patterns of all to familiar stories. Maybe there’s more nuance there than our minds, or others, want to lead us to believe?