I’m about three-quarters and a dime convinced that a certain blogger I’ve been reading on and off for years writes so well that she could, if she wanted to, transform the journey of a common black ant tediously meandering across a boring concrete sidewalk into a New York Times best seller.
Her eye for detail, sharp wit, and fresh, nearly poetic prose enrich commonplace life events with emotion and (often enough) laughter. She not only makes me feel, though: She makes me think, too. And thinking about something she wrote earlier tonight is what I’ve been doing for the past hour or so.
Should you like to read her post, it’s here. The soul of it is a “What was that all about?” moment that she had on her way to the gym. She wrote it up in a way that left me feeling like it had happened to me. So I commented on her post.
We had a brief exchange during which she proposed that her whole life was one WTF? moment after another. That got me thinking, “Yeah, there’s probably at least some truth to that for nearly everyone of us”.
Psychologists, among others, will tell you that we humans tend to naturally turn strings of events into stories, or “narratives”, as they call them. Where most other animals might see just a string of events, we see a narrative. For our species, such a string of events is often enough perceived as (1) causally linked, (2) progressive or unfolding, (3) thematic, and (4) tending towards a climatic moment followed by (5) a resolution. That list might have left out some things, too.
Seeing stories in events is not really something we learn, it’s something we’re born with. An instinctive way of perceiving or ordering reality. To feel the force of that instinct simply recall how you felt the last time someone told you an interesting or engaging story that…left you hanging.
FIRST PERSON: “It was the bottom of the ninth, the score was tied with two outs when Fisher stepped up to bat. The first pitch was super-fast, too fast for him to swing in time. Strike! But on the second pitch he connected.”
SECOND PERSON: “That’s it? But what happened next?”
On a subtle note, when you read the name “Fisher” did you for perhaps a brief instant wonder, “Why Fisher? Who is he?”, or something along those lines? If so, that’s your mind trying to change a simple fact (i.e. the name “Fisher”) into more story, more narrative.
I’m not going to spend time here speculating on why we see stories in causally related events, because I’d like to focus on something else instead: I think it’s highly arguable that life mostly is not what we so often think it is.
Mostly, life does not fit quite so neatly into the frame of a story. But do we easily remember how often that’s the case? I don’t think so. When life fails to fit into a story, I think we tend to dismiss it, downplay it, forget it, unless there is some distinctive reason not to forget it (e.g. an event was funny, poignant, moving, disturbing, scary, etc.). What’s mostly left are memories of when life did make passable sense as a story, and thus we have an impression that life is more often a story than it actually is.
Put differently, I think it might be arguable that life is more often composed of “What was that all about?” moments than it is composed of more tidy and satisfying conclusions.
For instance, shyness was quite a problem for me from an early age through to my late 30s. But the shyness ran beneath the surface, beneath the mask I wore of a fairly outgoing person. I myself was keenly aware of it, though.
Then, sometime in my late 30s or early 40s it all but entirely disappeared. I’m 60 now, and I can probably count on my ten fingers the number of times since age 45 that I’ve felt shy. Why it went away, I have no idea. I can speculate endlessly on that question, but I cannot find a convincing answer to it.
My shyness thus makes a mostly unsatisfying story. Sure, there’s a sort of resolution (i.e. it did go away), but I am left hanging on the why. Consequently, when I look back on it now, I have feelings of “What was that all about?” And those feelings are magnified for me by the fact that I spent so much time and effort in my younger years trying one thing after another to eradicate my shyness. Not one of those things worked for me. Then. for no apparent reason, it was gone.
When you read about my shyness, do you feel an urge to explain why it went away? If you’re like me, you do. My mind wants to just jump in there with the most plausible explanation it can conjure, regardless of the fact there’s no practical way I know of actually testing any explanation to determine if it is really true.
“What was that all about? moments might just be far more common than we think. It’s even arguable that they are more characteristic of life than moments when things do make a heap of sense. But whatever the case, it’s a fact our minds see strings of causally connected events as stories. In light of that, a “What was that all about?” moment can be thought of as the “conclusion” to an aborted story.
Please feel free to share your favorite “What was that all about?” moment! And, by the way, some of my earlier views on the topic of our narrative minds can be found here.