I am sometimes asked why I find stories so interesting to study. It is a fair question, especially since I seem to get further and further drawn in to narratives – developing story-based school-teaching resources, organising events for the Story and Religion research network, reading ever more about the role of story in human cognition, psychology and society, and even telling Indian animal stories at Edinburgh Zoo!
The short answer is, I think, threefold (as is always best – the law of threes is another pervasive narrative principle…):
- stories are fun
- stories are ways of thinking
- stories are open
The first of these is why I feel so lucky that my job involves reading stories. Stories are inherently fun and engaging, and I find I get a lot of enjoyment and intellectual stimulation from reading and studying them. If we are to believe the evolutionary psychologists, the telling of stories evolved as a way of allowing humans to negotiate complex social interactions, to plan for the future and imagine alternative courses of action. We are therefore programmed to enjoy them and find them worthwhile. (I recently finished reading The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, which is an accessible and enjoyable exploration of this area.)
Stories are sometimes dismissed as being rather simplistic, for children, as either simple fluffy fun or else straightforward didactic tools. Far from it. Probably the thing I love most about stories is that they are complicated explorations of life’s challenges and confusions. In other words stories are ways of thinking. I often quote Buddhologist Steven Collins on this – he speaks of two parallel streams of thought, systematic and narrative. Narrative thought, he argues, is just as worthy of study as systematic thought. (See for example, his discussion in Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities, CUP 1998.) I couldn’t agree more.
And because stories are ways of thinking, they are also open to multiple relationships with multiple audiences (including the tellers and retellers of stories). They may suit a variety of times, places or uses, or be open to reframing to suit different purposes. They may evolve and change, and sometimes the changes in how a community used or responded to a story can expose their particular concerns or priorities. Different people will see different things in a story depending on how they are able to hook that story onto their existing experiences.
Another book I have recently finished reading is If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! by psychotherapist and narrative-enthusiast Sheldon B. Kopp. It is a little dated, perhaps (I found the constant male pronouns a bit annoying) but it is wonderfully rich in its discussion of how stories can be used to explore the human situation. The therapeutic qualities of story depend upon the possibility of reading ourselves into a narrative, or of relating to it in a particular way because of our own circumstances. In other words the open-ness of story serves an important function. (Our ability to tell our own lifestory is of course another key aspect of the psychotherapeutic process.)
An appreciation of the universal qualities of story – as fun, open, and a sophisticated way of thinking – serves to frame my more specific interest in Indian narrative traditions, and in the ways in which stories are used by Indian religious communities to explore their key ideas and practices. In other words my specific research interest keeps an ever-shifting balance between the unifying qualities of story – for all humans in all times and places – and the very particular times and places that I am trying to understand.