Monday, October 28, 2019

Creating The Stories They Need To Create

Among the earliest human recreations was sitting around the campfire telling stories. I imagine the first stories were of the informational variety, the sort that bees dance to one another about where they've found nectar or pollen. But then someone got the idea to lie, not maliciously of course, but simply because they could, by way of making the story more engaging, or to make themselves appear braver, or to illicit laughter. Maybe the first lie was an accident: they misspoke, were believed, then later remembered they had got it wrong.

Whatever the case, it must have been a real mind-blower, this idea that by simply saying things that are not true, a whole new reality is created. After all, how were these other people to know? They weren't there, they hadn't seen it, they have no choice but to take my word for it. I imagine it's much the same when young children first discover the concept at around the age of two.

We all lie, at least sometimes. The average person lies once or twice a day according to research, although since the methodology necessarily relies on self-reporting, at least some of the study subjects likely lied about their lying. And then, there is the whole matter of definition. There are certainly degrees of lying. Many of us don't consider it a lie-lie if it's spoken, for instance, for the purpose of allowing someone to avoid embarrassment, or to make them feel better about themselves, or some other "white lie." And, of course, there are the lies we tell ourselves, lies of omission, lies we permit in service of a greater truth. I've known some absolutists who consider lying of any kind to be wrong, but for most of us, most of the time, the moral line is more of a situational gray smudge.

And then there the lies of storytellers, those fabrications, exaggerations, and outright balderdash that comprise a really good story. We excuse these untruths because, most of the time, we know from the start that the storyteller, the novelist, or the movie maker is creating something, that it didn't really happen. We're in on it, and in a very real sense, we are co-creators in that we suspend our disbelief and become part of the story. The fascinating thing about stories is that they are made up of "lies," yet very often they convey a greater truth far more directly and clearly than we can ever hope to convey it through truth alone.

Lies told to deceive, harm, or manipulate are clearly immoral, but there is a whole world of untruth that appears to be necessary for humans to make sense of the world. Indeed, in many ways what we consider to be our "self" is really just the story we tell about our experiences, both individually and collectively. As Virginia Woolf wrote, "We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself."

When young children lie it's generally quite easy to catch them out, and we should, gently, call them on it when their intent is to deceive, harm, or manipulate. But when their lies are of the "because I can" variety, such as about a stuffed teddy that talks or, as one girl insisted for the better part of a year, that she is, in fact, really a fairy, our better approach is to "believe" them as they practice creating the stories that they need to create in order to make sense of themselves and their world.

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