Are stories harmful?
While visiting a friend, I picked up Yuval Harari’s latest book and was intrigued by an essay titled: Life Is Not A Story. As a medical doctor who sees the consequences of self-destructive narratives in the consulting room, as an author who works within the domain of story, and as a facilitator who assists participants to write about their lives, I read this chapter with interest.
Harari argues that all stories are both false and destructive, making a compelling case for there being no evidence that the nationalist, cultural, historical, religious and relationship stories we tell ourselves and each other have any basis in fact. He advocates that we learn how our minds operate through meditation practices and thereby attempt to abandon story-making altogether. Meditation is an effective way to notice, reflect on and discard damaging habits of thought.
Yet Homo sapiens is a story-telling animal. As far as we know, we are the only creatures that have evolved this ability. Why would we have developed this capacity if the consequence serves only as self-deception? It is true that many stories we encourage promote the dominance of the group – to bind people together in the belief that their way way of seeing the world is correct, leading to ideas of superiority. Conversely, stories can be used to persuade groups that they are inferior.
The novelist and essayist, Chimamanda Adichie, warns against the danger of the single story in her TED talk. She was confronted by one idea of African people when she studied in the USA. The recently deceased novelist Binyavanga Wainaina highlighted our human tendency towards cliché and stereotype in his essay How To Write About Africa.
Can stories heal?
We can use narratives to justify behaviour, to arouse sentiment and action, to avoid reality, to feel special and to manipulate. Some stories allow us to believe things that are patently not true, but can only properly be understood through prejudice, brainwashing and self-deceit on the one hand, and mythology, metaphor and ritual on the other.
Homo Sapiens seems to be the only species that needs to find meaning in order to live with purpose and enjoyment. The novelist Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. We rely on meaning-making in order to accept the difficulties of life and to help guide us through them. We use story to soothe and comfort, to feel at home, to teach and to explore our own capacities and boundaries. I know a woman whose chronic anxiety and eczema was not cured by years of psychiatry and medication – solutions that rely on facts − but by a religious conversion: in essence, a story assisted her.
Meaning is created by association, linking this with that by means of narrative. We create difficulty for ourselves, our communities and the earth when we make destructive associations and tell a single story.
Story and identity
We understand ourselves through the collective and individual narratives we believe about who we are, where we have come from and where we are going. These stories form our national, cultural, religious and personal identities. They can foster a sense of security and belonging. They can also engender conflict when these identities are disrupted by new information, unconscious impulses, loss, illness, migration, invasion or other traumas and events.
The structure of most stories is: There’s a person who has a problem. All of us have encountered difficulties; we read to find out how the protagonist got into the situation and what they are going to do about it, if anything.
We affect and influence each other’s stories and identities in a multiplicity of ways, often without knowing that we do so. Hearing about other people’s experiences can allow us to dip into the circumstances of other lives, which might then give us pause for thought about our own.
Stories as acts of creation
Many stories that we absorb through historical, cultural, family and religious norms operate below the level of consciousness. We need to identify the stories that shape our lives. The world urgently needs stories that enhance and augment life, not only our own but those of people around us, not only those we love, but those whom we regard with suspicion as different, not only of human beings, but all life.
Stories can promote beliefs that harm or heal, that support or demean, that put us to sleep or wake us up. I am interested in our predisposition for assumptions and how they relate to the associations we make. These associations, based on memory, image and narrative, can improve quality of life for ourselves and others – or destroy lives. Imagination can convince us that because someone has a different skin colour, language or custom, they cannot be trusted – or imagination can open our hearts and understanding to learn about a stranger.
I propose that there is a valuable reason we have evolved as story-telling creatures. We can develop this resource by telling stories that reveal the harm embedded in many of the unconscious mottos and motifs by which we live – narratives that are fuelled by prejudice, stereotype, sentiment, and self-sabotage. We can expand our capacity by discovering that there is more than one story about Africa, about each other and even about ourselves.
Discover the stories living in and through you
The courses run by the Life Righting Collective assist participants to write effective narratives that can help us live more curiously and creatively. We publish some of these stories on our website and in our anthology This Is How It Is. Have a look. Come on a course. Opening these story doors might reveal different endings.
 Harari, YN (2018). 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Penguin Random House.
 Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Harper Collins, 1979