Addicted to Story

[The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Epic.]

When I grow up, I want to be Robin Hood. I always have, and, I suspect, I always will. The Disney cartoon held my imagination as a child in an iron grasp, and, through most of my childhood, I day-dreamed of archery contests, the clash of steel-on-steel, and rescuing fair damsels. To this day, I still nurse a glowing ember of hope that one day I’ll be able to don a feathered green cap and pick up a bow. My wife, however, isn’t so keen on the career change.

You and I may be different—you may not want to be a forest-dwelling vagabond. But at a very primal level, all of us shape our lives according to the stories that have captured our imagination. Maybe you stamped around the house in cowboy boots and a frayed straw hat, dreaming of becoming a rancher when you grew up. Or somewhere in the midst of pleading for “just one more jump off the diving board,” you set your mind on becoming an oceanographer. Or maybe your heart pounded in your years as you attempted to remove the “funny bone” from an electrically-charged board game—fixated on the thought that, one day, you’d do it for real on an operating table.

We all read books—turning pages or taping a screen in gripped anticipation of “what happens next.” We listen to records, or cassette tapes, or CDs, or MP3s and savor the visions they forge in our heads.

As author Jonathan Gottschall puts it, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories. . . . If you haven’t noticed this before, don’t despair: story is for a human as water is for a fish—all-encompassing and not quite palpable. While your body is always fixed at a particular point in space-time, your mind is always free to ramble in lands of make-believe. And it does.”

Something in our genetics—something woven into the very fabric of our humanity—makes story a fundamental part of not only how we process our world, but how we choose to live our lives. In fact, we understand our reality through the lens of story.

Think about it for a second or two: The last time you were on a plane and managed to sit next to one of those passengers that decided to ignore his copy of Sky Mall and instead talk to everyone around him, how did you answer the question, “What do you do?” Most likely, you told a story. Sure, it may not have been a thrilling story, but it was a story nonetheless. 

“I’m a investment specialist with Edward Jones.”
“I’m in college studying to become a dairy procurement officer.”
“I take care of my three kids.”
“I sell manicure supplies online.”
“I don’t have a job, but I’m trying to get into the novel-writing business.”

It doesn’t matter who we are or what we’ve done with our lives. We all define ourselves by the roll we play in our own story. And if we’re truly honest with ourselves, often the roll we currently play is only a stop on the way to the story we really want to be a part of.