29 January to 5 February – it is the Society for Storytelling’s National Storytelling Week. It helps with the children’s literacy and encourages storytellers, and it happens all over. Del Reid and Paul Jackson drive this initiative. I support anything and everything that promotes literacy, of course, but there is something extra interesting about celebrating – specifically – ‘storytelling’.
Story is central to humanity. Anthropologists will tell you that our species can’t really cooperate with more than 100, 150 other beings. The demands of direct social connections just become too much at that point. And so – in all likelihood – humanity may have stayed in roving bands, about a hundred strong, competing for resources, taking the territory, stuff and women of other tribes and slaughtering their men. Everyone alive today is alive because at some point in their past they were in an imperialist, violent, expansionist tribe. And we may have kept it at that too. There’s not much more growth possible. Society can’t really develop – opposable thumbs or no opposable thumbs.
What enabled us to surpass the 150 connection limit – and form villages, and kingdoms, and empires, and civilizations – was story.
Our shared stories alone civilized us – whether the stories were told about our people, or our land, or our kings, or our gods. Our legal systems, religions, languages and cultures all depended on the development of story.
After the advent of civilization, some say we were as violent as before. This is only partly true. We are still homo sapiens, indeed, and the same drives of survival, fear, greed, lust and vengeance power us – now with added stories. But folks also underestimate just how brutal and savage things can get without the benefit of stories. If you’ve ever watched a band of chimps tear a monkey limb from limb, alive, for the fun of it – you may get an understanding of what mankind was like, without our stories.
We read non-fiction and take in their stories. We read fiction or watch television or study courses or watch news or go to church or vote for our candidate or tell ourselves we can get through this… All of it, based on narratives, all of it useful, none of it 100% true.
Cave paintings 30,000 years old show this drive to tell stories, to capture events of great importance.
And here we are. Still telling stories.
Hell of an important thing to celebrate. May the kids have gentler stories than ours, and may our story keep getting better. Takes patience, and time, I know… I know.
But you should have seen where we came from…