This weekend I heard a story on This American Life that reminded me of another story I’d also heard on TAL (and also wrote about it here). The story from this weekend was about a version of the game of telephone (if you’re not familiar with the game, an explanation is below*), except that this was a more full-blown storytelling version of the game, run as a loosening exercise for people about to appear on a podcast. The first person told this short, concise, real-life story about a romantic relationship of someone in their friend group, it’s unexpected ending, an even more unexpected twist, ending with a quandary for the friend group. The next week’s guest listened to the story, then told it in turn for the next week’s guest, and so on.
Not unexpectedly, the story changed. And boy did it change. But while that it changed was not a surprise, what was most interesting about it is how the story changed. It got more dichotomous. It injected villainy and malice. It amped up the stakes. On the whole, it became more dramatic, with both a good guy and with a bad guy acting with definite intent. It became a plot (in both the nefarious plan kind of way and also in the narrative plot of a novel/etc sense of the word).
All of which all but obliterated the complexity, messiness, and humanity (including sadness, misfortune, and chances for empathy) of the story.
Which brought to mind that previous show on TAL where Ira had made the very astute observation, “And I think what that’s about is, I think, when we encounter something inexplicable or mysterious, our imaginations, we are such hacks. You know? We go to the most standard, stock, seen it in 100 TV shows version of what something probably is.”
Yep, it’s our storytelling minds being such hacks, taking something nebulous and turning it concrete, and often in a most nefarious direction.
And it’s important to remember that none of the participants in this game realized they were doing it, nor did they intend to do so! They had the same sense we all have: we hear it like it is, we understand it fully, and we disseminate it accurately, and while others may have problems sorting things out and keeping things straight and seeing things properly, or to keep their bias out of it, no, no not me, no, I tell it right. That might be the sense and experience we share, but it’s one that’s unfortunately caca. And the more we believe it, the more susceptible to our hack selves we become.
We’re not bad for this, of course. Storytelling is one of the greatest gifts we have as humans, and is perhaps the thing that makes us human. The idea is not to stop being storytellers or to become Vulcans. It’s just a great reminder to us to practice mindfulness and work to expand our awareness of ourselves, and a reminder to practice being present to and with what’s so. To develop our deep listening skills. And to pay attention to the story and not just the plot, representing the depths of the situation and of all those within it, including generosity and empathy, embracing complexity, and to be fascinated with the way life sometimes goes.
* In case you are not familiar with the game, the simple rules are that you get a group of people, and one person whispers a phrase of some kind to another player. That player then whispers it to the next player, who does the same to the next player in turn, and so on, until the last player receives the phrase and states it aloud. Note that no one can ask for the person to repeat it; they must pass it on as best they understood it. The surprising thing about the game is always just how different the last phrase often is… it can be downright astounding.