Friday, September 01, 2023

Our Stories Make Us Human

The emergence of human language some 150,000 years ago, it is said, also marks the beginnings of such things as our conceptions of time, visual perspective, and the scientific method. Even before the development of the phonetic alphabet, the requirements of language to move in a particular direction, with one thing following another, had conditioned our minds to perceive reality as directional or linear, which is the foundation of what makes humans unique among animals . . .  As far as we know.

Certainly, it's possible that other animal consciousnesses perceive reality as linear, but it's more likely that they don't given that physicists tell us that existence is almost surly not directional at all, that time has no arrow, and that the only thing that makes it seem that one thing follows the next is our unique human perspective. We are not, however, capable of comprehending reality as it is, with all things existing simultaneously and infinitely, except through mathematics. We cannot help but perceive cause and effect, and for the same reason we cannot help but tell stories, another thing that makes us unique among animals . . . As far as we know.

It might seem impossible to us, but human babies are born enmeshed in their environment through every bodily sense, one with the universe, so to speak, capable of perceiving the truth about existence, even as they are incapable of expressing it. Then, slowly, as language develops, they learn to perceive things as only humans do; to see life as, to quote my departed father-in-law, "one damn thing after another."

Language allows us to step outside of existence and observe it, and therefore, to some degree, control it. One of the key ways we do this is through storytelling, which is the ultimate way to prove that one damn thing does follow another. When a language-learning two-year-old is upset that their parent has left them alone at school, one of the surest ways to assure them is to tell them the story: "Mommy went away. You are at school. First we will play inside. Then we will clean up. Then we will eat a snack. Then we will play outside. Then we will read a book. Then mommy will come back."

The first several times I tell them this story it is meaningless to them; it does nothing at all to console them. They have not sufficiently learned the lessons of linearity, but as time goes on, as they both live the story and hear me tell the story, they begin to embrace it as a way to control and understand what is happening. Sometimes I even catch these young children whispering the story to themselves as they go about their days, ". . . inside, clean-up, snack, outside, book, mommy comes." They begin to anticipate, coming to me to declare, "It's clean-up time" or "Now it's time for outside," the word "time" being tested out as a way of understanding what is happening to and around them. As I come to the final pages of the book I always read at the end of our day together, their heads turn to look for mommy in the doorway. And if she is not immediately visible they say, "Mommy's not here," imagining a new possible ending to their story.

The centrality of stories to what makes us human cannot be overstated. Our stories are comprised of fact and fiction, of hopes and fears, of past, present, and future. When we tell stories to children, and when we listen to their stories (which are very often explicitly one damn thing after another), when we weave our stories together, we are collaborating in the human project of creating meaning and order. It's through storytelling that we come to finally take comfort from predictability and replicability. It's through storytelling that we come to understand that we can, in fact, change the story, to prove the rule of predictability by making it, at least in this instance unpredictable. It's through stories that we learn that we are not at the mercy of stories, that we ourselves can tell new stories or old stories in new ways.

Author Rebecca Solnit writes in her book The Faraway Nearby

"Fairy tales are almost always stories of the powerless, of youngest sons, abandoned children, orphans, of humans transformed into birds and beasts or otherwise enchanted away from their own selves and lives. Even the princesses are chattel to be disowned or sold by fathers, punished by stepmothers, or claimed by princes, though they often assert themselves in between and are rarely as passive as the cartoon versions. Fairy tales are children's stories not in who they were made for but in their focus on the early stages of life, when others have power over you and you have power over no one . . . In them, power is rarely the right tool for survival anyway. Rather the powerless thrive on alliances, often in the form of reciprocated acts of kindness -- from beehives that were not raided, birds that were not killed but set free or fed, old women who were saluted with respect. Kindness sown among the meek is harvested in crisis, in fairy tales and sometimes in actuality."

These are among the first stories that make sense to young children because they find themselves in a position of powerlessness, a condition that makes everyone, no matter our age, uncomfortable. It is the first among many injustices that we must process. These stories serve the same function as the story I teach to toddlers who miss their mommy. These stories serve the same function as all stories, which is to allow us to not feel so cast adrift. Stories are how we step outside ourselves to comprehend existence through our uniquely human perspective of linearity. And stories are how we re-enmesh ourselves with one another, connecting through our shared illusions of kindness and the comforting human illusion of one damn thing after another . . . As far as we know.


Stories are not just in books, but rather all around us, shaping our world, created by the way we speak to and with children. If you're interested in learning more about how the language we use with children impacts not just our relationships with them, but also their entire learning environment, please consider registering for my 6-week course The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think. Join the 2023 cohort as we examine how the language we use with children creates reality. We will explore how the way we speak with children becomes an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Registration closes on Saturday (Sept. 2), so act fast! Click here for more information and to register.

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