Editors Note: This is the first in a series about the importance of story.
I have early childhood memories of my parents reading to me, but I’m not sure which story entered my ears first. I am enjoying reading to my daughter some of my favorite children’s books, (crossing my fingers that pages won’t be ripped and colors won’t be added), re-feeling the emotions that the pictures and words stirred in me as a child, and watching the provocation of emotion in my child as she sees the images and hears the combination of sounds for the first time. I also enjoy watching her brain work as she searches for prior knowledge of or stores away the new knowledge imparted by the unfamiliar. “Puppy” and “Choo-choo” are becoming more specialized figures because “Kitty-cat” and “Bus” are now added to the mix.
This world of never-ending images seems to me to be a daunting task to take on and recognize; she takes it all in stride, categorizing one bug at a time.
We humans start from day one, matching pictures with sounds or other connecting senses, absorbing them, the sights and sounds, the smells and tastes, into our brains. Somehow, our brains make it all work together. They even provide us with an imagination to add in missing variables when all the senses are not supplied. If we hear a “Choo-choo” in the distance, we picture the train itself, perhaps even adding in the smell of creosote and burning coal. If we see a photograph of a beautiful shoreline, we start to hear the waves rolling, as though a conch shell were suddenly at our ear. If I let myself sink into that beach scene deeply enough, I can start to believe that my face is suddenly collecting freckles, their appearance brought out by the warmness on my cheeks.
Our brains evolve too as we grow and add more experience and more knowledge into our open faculties. Pre-daughter, a child crying two aisles over in the grocery store either caused me to cringe, my ears disturbed by the high-pitch, or, in more accompanying times, ignore the sound all together. Now, post-daughter, I either feel a longing for the company of my own little one or I feel the muscles in my neck and shoulders tense, a different longing altogether–an ache.
Humans have an amazing capacity to store multi-dimensional information and even categorize that information into sights, smells, sounds, feelings, and tastes. We have an amazing capacity to create with our imagination what we need when we don’t have what we need. And, we have an amazing capacity to remember and create story. (Ahh, there’s the word, the great tie-in: Story!)
Humans all have story. It is the thing that takes all the universal senses and adapts them for personal use. But the point of this is to work backwards. Story, deconstructed, is just senses adapted.
I think that this proof is true: if Story = Senses (Sights + Sounds + Feelings + Tastes + Smells), and Sense = Universal experience, then Story = Universal experience.
Think of toddlers. Well, let me think of my toddler. She dances when she hears music. She turns her head when a new sound enters a scene. She wrinkles her nose when she smells something afoul. (And pinches her nose and says, “Pee-U.”) She tries to jump. She reaches out from her stroller, to the point of nearly capsizing the vehicle, to touch all objects passing by, be they pointy or dirty or wiggly. She is not deterred by verbal warnings or increased stroller speed. She laughs, amused by herself or one of her clumsy parents.
I think she is a pretty normal toddler–I think her experiences and actions are pretty universal.
During my year-long stint as a music therapy major, I learned about a study that looked globally at groups of children and the music that they make. In all cultures, they all sang a “mocking” tune to each other, the up and down minor 3rd. Hear it? “Nah, nah, na na nah.”
Senses are important to humans. They are part of the maturation of us all. So, another Stephanie-proof: If Senses are important, and Story = Senses, then Story is important to humans.
One evening, at church of all places, my child became frightened. I was carrying everything but her, and she clung tightly to my jeans, her whole body getting into her cry. In fact, she was howling with tears, which were falling at a great rate, and she wanted desperately to be in my arms, to find the place that would allay her fear. Another mother came over and graciously took the load from my hands so that I could pick my daughter up. We were one instantly. My cheek and neck and shoulders became wet with her tears. Her feet dug into my back, her knees in my sides, one hand around my neck and the other grasping my hair. I took her from the large room and into a smaller one and spoke and sang softly until she released her grip a little. Her eyes checked in with mine–is everything okay? I smiled at her and pulled her to me again, another hug for emphasis.
The Story: This experience was my and my daughter’s unique experience, but the story’s basic framework is not ours alone. Children become frightened and run to their mothers. There are frightened children all over the world, and they and their mothers cling to one another.
The Senses: The fear is unique to each child, but fear is universal. Each mother has a unique urge to provide comfort, but comfort is universal. Tears fall down on cheeks and shoulders in unique patterns, but tears are universal.
To me, the hard part of Story is the unique/universal concept. Humans need to feel that they have unique experiences. But, humans also need to know that they are not alone in their experiences.
I think that it is in the Sharing phase that the contradiction works itself out. Ideally, the scenario goes like this:
Speaker: Here is my story. Here are my feelings.
Hearer: I hear your story. I acknowledge your feelings.
Then, the roles reverse:
Speaker, turned Hearer: What is your experience?
Hearer, turned Speaker: Here is my story. Here are my feelings.
The two walk away, feeling acknowledged as unique individuals having unique experiences but, through the identification of commonalities, feeling connected to the world without feeling lost in the world.
Theologically speaking, I think it goes like this: I was hungry, you fed me. You were hungry, I fed you.
As I said above, my daughter is learning to jump, but her toes can’t quite convince themselves to leave the ground behind. She thinks that she is a mirror image of me, and that her feet are coming completely off the ground too. (Mommy’s toes aren’t much higher off the ground that hers. Mommy’s calf muscles don’t like to work too hard.) My daughter somehow instinctively knows that one, there is pleasure in leaving the ground behind and two, that the ground will be there to stop her fall. She will return to the earth, hopefully landing on the bottoms of her feet and not her tailbone.
She will return to safety, right now in my arms. I pray that she will always have a safe spot. I pray that she hears song, the rolling along of a train or of the ocean as she is enveloped in a warm hug.
I pray that her soul, my soul, and all souls, all unique, find the courage to speak, the courage to hear, to jump, to catch, in universal fashion.
Read more from Stephanie Little Coyne at her blog.