Stories for Life
Richard Hamilton wrote about the effects of live storytelling in his article, ‘Tell me a story’ for Aeon.co. I quote here a few lines from his findings about our connection to stories and storytelling: ‘A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens,’ wrote the American novelist Reynolds Price in the essay ‘A Single Meaning’ (1978). ‘[It is] second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence.’
We all know how much we love and need stories. And to hear that it is our second basic need after food, before love and shelter, is mindboggling. But, it is especially the last sentence of this little quote that urged me to write: the suggestion that there can be almost no human life where there is no more story to be heard. I agree with this statement, but I would like to take it a little further and discuss the nature of silence.
There is a section in the book, ‘Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists’, where John Cage conducts an interesting research on sound and the Zen idea of ‘nothingness’. Since Cage works with sound, he wants to experience ‘soundlessness’. He goes to Harvard University, where there is an anechoic chamber, a soundproof box that offers ‘the most perfect silence on earth’. As he sits in the womb-like chamber, something unexpected happens: he hears ‘a dull roar and a high whine!’ Where there is no sound from no-thing, Cage hears earfuls of sound. When he speaks to the engineer about what he heard, the engineer says: ‘The high whine is the firing of his neurons. The dull roar is the blood flowing through Cage’s veins.’
Even where there is total silence, by our sheer existence we create sound. And that sound, if stripped from every other sound, is the story of our body: the sound of our biology sustaining itself, narrating its story.
‘Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence.’ If silence is an absence of story, Cage’s experiment is proof that even in silence, as long as a human being exists, there will never be silence, and therefore never an absence of stories. Thus, millions can survive in silence too, as they will always have the story of their existence to listen to.
Stories are the lifeblood of our mental and emotional life. Richard Hamilton’s article differentiates live storytelling from other means of perceiving stories. As a lover of movies, the article raised my curiosity about perceiving stories through watching/listening to the teller of the story, as opposed to passive absorption in somebody else’s product of imagination projected onto a screen. Could live storytelling be a more direct and simple way of making sense of life through stories?
My yogi husband doesn’t enjoy movies like I do. But he can sit or move in meditation for hours in the dark of the night, when he is exposed to as little sound or image as possible. Whether we are in our chamber of silence, or exposed to a multitude of tales made up of infinite sounds and images, we are secretly striving to hear the narrative of our lives. May we find it, whichever way we choose.