The Artdog Quotes of the Week

Life doesn’t make sense. At least, not until we make sense of it. On this blog I‘ve often written about art as a means of building bridges of understanding. I see “story” as a basic human need, because it’s essential to our making sense of things.

This quote from Dr. Pamela Rutledge says: "Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Call them schemas, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models, metaphors, or narratives. Stories are how we explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values."

An example from the Sunday paper

I recently saw an example of this. Kathleen Parker used The Wizard of Oz as a frame of reference for interpreting recent political events. This is story-as-meaning-making in its most elemental form. 

Could she have done the same basic thing using a less-well-known story? Maybe. But not if she wanted her readers to instantly know what she meant when she referenced characters such as the WizardDorothy, or others (identifying Conan the Hero Dog with Toto gave me a laugh. But I’m sorry–the Scarecrow was much smarter than Devin Nunes!). 

The Wizard of Oz is a widely-understood cultural element in the United States. If Parker had tried to make a point using a less famous story, she would’ve needed to take precious column-inches to sketch the basics of the story. But it still could’ve been effective. Using a story to comment on contemporary events is simply humans making sense of things.

This quote from Tom's Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie reads: "Facts are neutral until human beings add their own meaning to those facts. People make their decisions based on what the facts mean to them, not on the facts themselves. The meaning thay add to facts depends on their current story . . . Facts are not terribly useful to influencing others. People don't need new facts--they need a new story."

Using story as a framework for understanding

A few years ago someone told me that only if you “wrap an idea in a person” can you truly communicate the idea. I accepted this for consideration at the time, but I think it’s off the mark. The way you communicate an idea is by wrapping it in a story. This is very much to Mycoski’s point. Making sense of things depends on the story we use as a framework.

As you might imagine, this is inconvenient when we’re trying to persuade someone, and the argument is grounded in facts (such as research about climate change or the safety of vaccinations, for instance), but the person we’re trying to persuade sees things very differently.

It can be maddening when one person looks at a given set of facts and interprets them one way (“I want you to do us a favor, though” equals bribery and abuse of power), but another person looks at the same set of facts and sees something entirely else (“We do that all the time. Get over it!“). Clearly, they aren’t using the same stories to form their frames of reference when they’re making sense of things.

This quote from Sharon Daloz Parks says, "The stories we live and tell provide coherence and meaning and orient our sense of purpose."

Our stories about ourselves

Stories are even more important to us personally, when we’re making sense of things in our own lives. Our stories–our frames of reference–profoundly affect our interactions with the world and our understandings of ourselves.

I am a female. When I was growing up in the late-middle of the 20th Century, that meant I had certain commonly-assumed limitations. Girls “couldn’t” be athletes (not and remain “ladylike”). Girls “didn’t” do well at math (my own dear mother, who was usually all about encouraging my dreams, told me this as a straight-out). As girls, we had only three “respectable” career paths: secretary, nurse, or teacher (you’ll note which one I chose). 

Even more ominously, men had a right to leer at us, to touch us, to demand that we looked a certain way, and and to claim us as being “under their protection.” 

That’s just the way it was, we were told. By everyone in the society around us.

Recovering from destructive stories

Not everyone in my generation has managed to shake off those oppressive, omnipresent stories. Not all of us are even yet free of patriarchal frames of reference. And all of us most certainly were marked by them. In many of us they persist, even when we repeatedly stomp them down if they rise to the level of conscious thought.

This idea is probably top-of-mind for me right now because I’ve been working on a novelette whose theme addresses this. The stories that have always framed the POV character’s understanding  of herself and her place in the world are challenged. Making sense of new facts and ideas forces her to change some of her frames of reference. And that makes a huge difference to her outcomes.

The stories we tell ourselves are powerful. Life-changing. They can be anything from life-threatening to empowering, but one thing is certain. 

We need to be very careful what stories we accept, when we’re making sense of things.


Many thanks to Images and Voices of Hope (ivoh) via their “Storytelling Quotes” Pinterest Board, for the quote from Dr. Pamela Rutledge. Thanks also to Libquotes for the quote from Blake Mycoski, and to Self Narrate, again via Pinterest, on their “Quotes about the power of story” board, for the quote from Sharon Daloz Parks