We’d like to think that what makes a story live on is its truth; that some fantastical, magical, unbelievable, hilarious, absurd, disgusting, beautiful, awesome narrative actually happened. This is why film-makers are keen to attach “Based on true events” at the start of a film. But how do we know that any story we hear and retell is actually true?
A funny but not entirely true story
One night several colleagues and I were having dinner and I told a very funny story about a very funny senior executive, let’s call him Bob, who was our guest of honor at the dinner table.
In the story, Bob is at home having a birthday party for his five-year old. The place is overrun with little kids and supervising parents. Out in the patio, one parent is feeding pigeons and several kids are of course fascinated with the flapping wings and birds jockeying for position.
Our hero, a renowned mischief-maker, takes out a BB gun and decides to surprise the children by getting the birds to fly off in a group.
Our hero takes aim, fires, and hits a hapless bird that flies in front of his target.
Now, instead of surprise and wonder on little faces at all the pigeons taking flight, there are kids wailing at the sight of a mortally wounded pigeon, beating about bleeding all over the front patio in death throes.
Recounting his wife accusing him of being an asshole, little kids calling him a murderer, and parents leaving with their kids saying “How could you?”, “What were you thinking?”, and his feeble defense of “That’s never happened before. I shoot them all the time,” guarantees a good laugh.
The new employees at our dinner table enjoyed the story as several of us competed to retell it. We all had fun, but what was interesting was how different our story was from the “true” story Bob offered after we had finished. He had listened and laughed and said he loved the story but he had to correct a few things.
He then went on to give his first-hand account which was significantly different from the story we had just told. It was still funny, but not so much, and what was clear to us is that a story that helped make him a company character didn’t really happen. People, myself included, were recounting their memory of the story they heard someone else tell, not the incident itself, and that’s an important distinction.
Memory is reconstruction
Perhaps you have experienced this phenomenon yourself. Maybe at a family dinner, a brother or sister will disagree with a major aspect of your recounting of how something or someone was. Your telling of it is different.
The point is that what you remember about your past is not factually accurate in every detail and that what you remember is more the story about an incident and less the incident itself. This is especially true about stories about past events absent you. You are recounting a story, and the good stories are almost never 100%
You are recounting a story, and the good stories are almost never 100% true, are they?
That fish you caught wasn’t quite that big, you didn’t party quite that much, and your cheeky remark wasn’t actually said loud enough to be heard.
Often we tell a grander version of our past because it’s funnier or because it’s become tradition to tell it that way, and once you realize this you’ll see that people are more interested in telling stories than recounting history; you’ll see a possible past reality quite different from the stories we tell each other.
Always acknowledge two things about the truth
We say the truth is important and will set us free, but my discovery above—about a story I told as true but wasn’t—plus the rise of fake news should teach us two things:
- Finding the truth is hard work. Whether it’s Trump’s collusion, or how many drinks you had at the last office party, finding and separating facts from opinion is hard work.
- and you’re unwilling to do it. No shame there. It’s a lot of work and you’re not a scientist, researcher or detective and you have other things you’d prefer doing, like watching Suits, or Game of Thrones.
Always remember three things about a story
But once you acknowledge you’re unwilling to do the hard work of finding the truth then it’s easy to remember three important things about the stories we pass around every day.
1.Don’t think of them as true
It’s not to say they’re lies, but there is quite the continuum from complete falsehood to the whole truth and nothing but, and as I’ve said before—no single person can give more than their honest perspective, and even that is colored by unconscious bias.
2.It’s being passed along for a reason
Person’s accepting and transmitting stories have an agenda; they get some payoff: they were the first to know, they get to be a trusted source of what’s really going on, “You heard it from me.” They get to be right about some earlier allegation, suspicion, or belief.
3. Something is at stake
Many stories are trivial and inconsequential, but for some, it matters a great deal whether you accept and retell, or reject and suppress. Someone’s image, reputation, freedom or quality of life may be at stake. In my story above, what was at stake was the image of a very senior executive as a funny guy who often got himself into trouble. I could say I knew him and worked with him, and for some reason, that was important to me. Lucky for me there were other stories, stories he corroborated.
It’s OK to tell stories that embellish
We often do it without conscious intent. We get to be right, we varnish a hero, and we get to feel good, angry, sad about the past or future.
Some of us don’t so much embellish stories about ourselves, as darken them to present ourselves in a bad light. Like masochists that self-flagellate with negative interpretations about stuff that happened or will happen. “We’re undeserving losers, failures that will never amount to anything and we’ll never be rich and successful or find true love.”
Some of us are true embellishers, putting a positive spin on everything that happened or will happen to us. “We’re winners! Everything has always and will always work out for us. Everybody loves us because we’re always right and we know how to make money. Plus we are soooo good looking it hurts.”
Both types can be hard to take but do you notice that their lives seem to unfold according to the stories they tell?
Perhaps the lesson is that while the truth in stories is important, what’s more important is the world they create for the people who tell them.