Blood and Guts – In Defense of Stories

Mythology … is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.

            -Karen Armstrong

My grandfather’s study smells like old smoke and dusty paper. Within its dimly lit space you’ll find walls lined with books, books exuding that particular smell of knowledge that can’t be found outside the domain of yellowing pages and cracking spines. The study has become a hallowed place to me. In the mingling of smoke, dust, and paper, I feel like I am breathing in the wisdom of greater men. Because my grandfather’s study, it smells like the birthplace of stories.

You see, my grandfather is a writer. Most days, at four in the morning, you’ll find him at his desk, busy helping stories into the world. Bits of paper and ideas float in the pool of light cast by the desk lamp. Above these drifts the sound of fingers on keys, linking flesh to bone to ink to paper. It’s lonely and it’s thankless, but it’s necessary, because without stories, we lose so much of what makes us human.

I think I’ve spent as much time in my head as I have in the real world. Always a bit of a space case, I was that weird kid who used to sit and stare into the distance, opening imaginary cupboards into worlds that didn’t exist in the same sense as ours. I am thankful for this; I was exploring.

When reading freed me from the fetters of my own imagination, I could even explore worlds and ideas far beyond the abilities of an earthbound boy. I drank in concepts as fast as I could stomach them, leaving me with the aftertaste of something learned. Little by little these encounters changed me.

Stories have been with us for about as long as we’ve been human. Our ancestors used them to make sense of the world. They crafted tales of how the world came to be; of forces they couldn’t understand or control; of their own ancestors and the lives they led, and through these stories came an understanding of how to live. Because they were told to children, who listened and marvelled and remembered like only children can, they lived on. Tales rose up and taught the next generation about the life ahead of them, never actually letting it slip that they were sitting in a classroom.

Peter Rollins once said: “The point of a parable is not to tell you something about the world, but to change the way you interact with it.”

A good story presents a complex picture, one the listener must wrestle with. It grips the guts and shakes until the vibrations reach the brain, sometimes shaking loose little ideas, and ideas tend to grow. Stories give context. They force a re-evaluation of what you believe. Sometimes stories are more true than facts, which is why holy writ is made from the dust of the real.

Stories guide us. They open us up to the possibilities of life in all its gritty confusion. We live the lives we could possibly have led and we get the chance to learn from them. We are given the opportunity to judge another’s actions, only to realise that they are our own.

You see, the wonderful thing about stories is not that they happened, but that they happen every day.

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3 thoughts on “Blood and Guts – In Defense of Stories

  1. Karen Armstrong’s point from the opposite direction: “Life is dreams checked by physics.” From John Crowley’s Aegypt series. Perhaps stories, dreams, metaphors, etc. are all not just an addition to the living of life, but its precondition?

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    • Hmm. I’d have to think on that a bit more to truly make sense of all the inferences and possibilities in that statement.

      There is a very real way in which Language enables experience. So if we’re talking about living of life in that way, The argument can most definitely be made. Would metaphors and stories then be some kind of heuristic, designed to simplify the process of engaging with the world?

      Loving the ideas this stirs up.

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  2. I loved your piece – I agree with a lot that was said and have appreciation for the lessons that we learn from stories… and yet… I also have a great appreciation for reality. I am starting to learn that one must have a deep sense of scepticism of philisophical arguments and thoughts that are not checked by reality – not because I do not appreciate imagination, but because the danger in reaching the wrong conclusions and learning the wrong lessons are so great. The danger with stories is that lessons are often learned without having their assumptions checked. What constitutes an acceptible story? Where to draw the line? Can you even do that? I don’t know. All I know is that one needs to be careful with one’s own programming… Without being too rigid… One of life’s conundrums.

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