Stories have a unique place in human nature. They serve many purposes but the one I’d like to talk about is how they help us understand the world around us, typically in causal terms. That’s why “Why?” is such an important question for us.
Jordan Peterson suggests that when something happens directly to us, we go through several levels of understanding. The first one is somewhat like a tape recording, and it is entirely embodied. It’s almost completely unprocessed and if asked to describe the event, very few words and more acting out happens. The second stage is a bit more process and distills the emotions caused by the event (if I recall correctly), so if someone was asked to describe it, they would describe it using emotional terms like, “I’m so mad”. Eventually, it gets distilled further into a more cognitive, explanatory story, such as, “That happened because this and this”. We seek explanations, as well, however, they seem to have the quality of reducing our emotions about a subject. There are times where it might be better not to reduce something entirely to words, so sometimes I will deliberately leave things unexplained or at least not explained completely to death, to continue the experience of those emotions, such as things I’m really interested in. Sometimes, even identifying an emotion such as “I’m feeling angry” can reduce that emotion.
Early on, one of the limiting beliefs I had towards discovering my purpose was that it would remove the sense of mystery and possibility I feel about my life by just making it into something completely known. A study found that people who write about a trauma have better health (fewer doctor visits, etc) and had better subjective well-being (happier) for 45 minutes at a time for a few times. The people who had the biggest impact wrote about what the explanation for the trauma may have been.
We explain things all the time. In depressed people, you can find a consistently negative explanation for events (and a bit self-centered, if you ask me, the whole world doesn’t hate you, the world doesn’t really care). There are times when I think about something and realize that it makes very little sense if it wasn’t already so well accepted and familiar. Take the example Peterson used, The Lion King. It is the touching tale of a young prince lion cub running away after his father, the just king dies. The evil uncle inherits the kingdom and turns it into his playground and things to really badly. Years pass and one day, a childhood friend of the prince is hunting for food and finds the lion prince and convinces him to return. Upon returning, the lion prince defeats the evil uncle and order is restored. However, to aliens, it might seem very strange for talking predators who have no ability to talk in real life, portrayed on screen, being best of friends with some of their prey, hating their own kind for reasons not of heiarchicial dominances.
It’s a very strange thing. But, stories do something to us and for us. It’s not just the rich experience of emotions that we may not otherwise feel, there’s something else there. They’re integral to the way we are. We find stories arranged in a specific structure somehow more engrossing than ones which are without that structure. Strange, indeed, and a mystery to me.
Peterson did a recorded lecture series that’s online, the first one is fascinating and it’s about stories called “There’s No Such Thing As A Dragon.” You can find them here. The first episode is below: