The Stories We Tell

April 16, 2013
Cheryl Woelk |

Much has been written on this blog about the stories we tell. This narrative perspective is becoming a stronger one in many fields of study, including therapy, education, conflict resolution, and negotiation. The basic concept is described well in Bruner's Acts of Meaning (link). Bruner describes human efforts at making meaning as collecting information in the organization of stories. We like to have characters, plots, settings, and we remember through the stories we construct.

As Bruner puts it, the human tendency seems to find out the norm and keep it. We tell stories to make sense of what is unusual - what is outside the norm. The stories help us to bridge the gap between what we expect should be and what actually is. Then we get into the language of reasons to explain the gap.


Yet conflict can also occur because of the stories we tell, such as when two stories of identity clash, or when the stories end up blaming one person for a conflict for which all actually have responsibility. I see this in the polarization of political views, for example, when one side tells the story of the other side making bad political decisions that led the country into a bad economic situation. As a result, political parties can be made out to be enemies and "bad guys." In reality, a system as complex as a country's economy is influenced not just be one political party but by every institute and agent connected to it as well as forces outside the nation.


Telling stories, however, can also help us find ways out of conflict. We can tell our stories and listen to others' stories to hear and understand different ways of perceiving and constructing reality. We can reshape our stories, choosing the alternative positive to replace the persistent negative.


When the Bible is thought of as a source of doctrine and instructions rather than a storybook, we miss out on a lot of the rich nuanced meaning that can be found within its chapters. When viewed from a narrative perspective, however, we start to see how the writers and readers of times before shaped the stories of their histories and lives around God's presence. Just individuals or groups today hold up contradictory narratives, the Bible contains all of these stories, even seemingly opposite ones. Yet from a narrative point of view, this only adds more richness and complexity rather than confusion or discouragement. It offers readers even thousands of years later enough to chew on, to weave into their own life stories.


As fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss puts it, “It's like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” How we construct, tell, and act out our stories makes all the difference.


Just  another encouragement to think about the stories we tell.

Author Name: 
Cheryl Woelk
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