For about ten years I have had a part-time job working as visiting writer in local public high schools. I visit a class once a week, and for the unit I am with them, students will read and write short stories. One of my goals is not only to introduce them to the form of short stories, but to give them a glimpse as to the importance of stories in general. Any kind of story. Not just what's packaged and produced, but what they tell their friends, what their friends tell them. This is not mere entertainment—this is the stuff of life.
I start by asking them what it is they think human beings need. They tell me food, water, air, shelter. After a silence, somebody will say sex. Sometimes they say other humans. We are social animals, after all, like bees or wolves. We live in groups.
So I ask them what evolutionary traits have we been given that allow us to eat? Teeth, mouth. Breathe? Lungs. And what have we been given that allows us to live in groups?
Eventually we come to language. We talk about what we do with language. We tell how we are feeling. We make plans. We tell what happened. These are stories, I say, what we are going to do, what we did, how we feel about it.
I ask what else we have been given that allows us to live in groups. They look around. I ask them what compassion means. We talk about it. We break it down. We learn that compassion means to share the suffering of somebody else.
I ask how it is they can do that. What do they use in order to know what somebody, unlike them, might be feeling? I tell them to think of taking a walk with the class over the mountain next to town. One of them falls down and hurts her back. Nobody else in the class has done that before. How can we possibly know what that person is feeling? Why don't we just walk on and leave that person?
The word I'm trying to get them to say is imagination. We imagine what it must feel like to have a broken back. We imagine, and so can share that person's suffering. We have that tool, and that tool allows us to feel compassion, and feeling what it is like to be another person is essential to living in groups. And living in groups is essential to our survival. Suddenly imagination isn't just a fun thing. Something little children do. But as important as teeth or lungs to our survival.
I focus on this word: imagination. I describe it as a muscle, like the muscles of our legs. Like our legs, it aches to be used. If it is still for too long, we get restless. Bored. And if somebody is telling a story nearby, we listen. We can't help it. We watch movies, read books, talk to friends and family. We send text messages. We need stories like we need food and water. Without them, we waste away.
Then I ask them what courage means. And cowardice. We soon learn that none of us can talk about courage abstractly. We have to give examples. And these examples are stories. The same with when we talk about right and wrong, good and evil, love and hate. Yet even if everybody in the class told me a love story, or a courage story, we still wouldn't be able to get our minds around the entire word. I ask them if they think any humans, in any culture, in any time in history, have ever not had these concepts in their heads. Courage. Morality. Love.
They don't think so. So these concepts are part of our humanity, we conclude. They are part of what makes us human. And the only way we can think about them is with stories.
The next thing I do is ask who in the class is more of a liar this year than last year. Some hands go up. I ask who is more honest. More hands go up. Who is crueler than he was last year. More kind? More capable of love? Less so?
It is amazing how they participate. They've all changed, of course. So I ask how and why? Sometimes they can tell me why. Often they can't say exactly, but they can try. Human change, human development, we discover, is mysterious and we are often compelled to explain it, even if only to ourselves, with stories, by describing a series of events. Without these stories, we are lost and alone and confused. The stories, even if they shift and change with time, give us the little clarity we need each day.
So stories explain the mystery of change, too. They explain the day the heart opened, the day the heart closed. They explain how we became who we are, how we became aware of something ugly in ourselves or the world, or beautiful. How we lost faith. How we found it. And how, exactly, to the moment, to the second, we finally—albeit briefly—understood.