No Story, No Life

By Michael Lederer

Every­thing we do begins with a sto­ry. With­out sto­ry, we would per­ish. We don’t get off that couch and head to the kitchen unless we have first told our­selves a lit­tle sto­ry: “There’s food in that kitchen, it will taste good, erase the feel­ing of hunger, and thanks to it I will sur­vive.” We may not say those words out loud, and if we do, some­one should call a doc­tor. But at the most pri­mal lev­el, that sto­ry is told and its les­son heeded.

Cave art, Argenti­na, ca. 7,000 BC

We don’t mar­ry unless we have first told our­selves a longer sto­ry: “Life will be bet­ter with this per­son. We’ll do this and that, have this and that.” We then fol­low that sto­ry – with all its plot and twists. Sto­ry is the trail we explore, the glue that binds one moment to the next. The fastest sto­ries are called instincts. No words need­ed. Sud­den dan­ger? Bet­ter to hide behind that big rock than behind that lit­tle paper cup. Dots con­nect­ed, alter­na­tive end­ings imag­ined – just as the writer does.

Sto­ry is cal­cu­la­tion. Sto­ry is signpost.

Mem­o­ries are sto­ries we tell our­selves. We usu­al­ly come out as the hero in those. That’s fun. “I was right, they were wrong.” Mem­o­ry is lit­tle more than a sto­ry­book of sur­vival on the hard dri­ve. “Drink this, don’t drink that. Trust this per­son, don’t trust that one. I will nev­er touch a hot stove again because I remem­ber what hap­pened the last time I did.”

Sto­ry puts the past at the ser­vice of the present as we pre­pare for tomorrow.

And because we are emo­tion­al crea­tures (dis­tin­guish­ing us for­ev­er from AI), sur­vival means more than the mere phys­i­cal. Mem­o­ry sto­ries work such mag­ic as keep­ing the depart­ed with us a while longer. AI’s algo­rithms might chart a nov­el or script, but mag­ic? How would you code that? Sto­ry lends the pris­on­er some free­dom in their cell. The great ‘IF’. Sto­ry is the bridge between what is and what could be.

DNA is sto­ry: Once upon a time, your fam­i­ly had eyes the col­or of this or that, were strong in this place and weak in the oth­er one, so this is what you’ll get. Inher­i­tance. Like the read­ing of a will. There’s a sto­ry with some eager read­ers. Sto­ry is deep­er, stretch­es fur­ther, and mat­ters more than paper, pen, pix­els, or even words them­selves can hint at. Those are only the frames for the paint­ing. Like water in a glass, sto­ry can take any shape. It can teach, it can also dis­tract. A need­ed respite as our strength is mar­shaled for the next effort.

A face is a great sto­ry­teller. Again, no words as we com­mu­ni­cate in that moment of first glance such com­plex­i­ties as inter­est, lack of inter­est, hier­ar­chy, oppor­tu­ni­ty, risk, com­fort. Faces exchang­ing fast sto­ries on a train. I love that.

What is the bee’s wag­gle dance but sto­ry­telling? “Hey guys, gals, great news. Twen­ty meters past that oak tree, head­ing ten degrees south of the sun, there’s the sweet­est clover field. You want hon­ey, that’s the spot.” Sto­ry is as fun­da­men­tal to life as air, water, food, love. Remove any one of those and the oth­ers crum­ble like dust from a spent star.

My favorite sto­ry of all time lit­er­al­ly is a sten­ciled hand­print on a cave wall from the Upper Pale­olith­ic peri­od, some 40,000 years old. Sto­ry­telling at its most pri­mal – “I was here. I exist­ed.” Fast for­ward, and there have been whole vol­umes meant to say lit­tle more than that. Sto­ry is the mor­tal yearn­ing for its place in the immor­tal. Today beg­ging to be remem­bered. It’s why I write. Hop­ing to leave a fin­ger­print behind point­ing toward the hon­ey. This is my wag­gle dance.

So, when a child asks for a sto­ry at bed­time, they are ask­ing for so much more than wiz­ards, heroes, and trea­sures found. They’re ask­ing for the keys to life itself. How to gain, how to lose. The con­tain­er in which we pass those keys on to them is called a story.

Pho­to cred­it: Kata­ri­na Led­er­er, The author read­ing a bed­time sto­ry to his chil­dren Lukas, Kata­ri­na, and Alex.

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Michael Led­er­er is an Amer­i­can writer who lives in Berlin. His newest stage play “Casu­al Bag­gage” is the sto­ry of the only small group of Jew­ish refugees from Europe admit­ted into the Unit­ed States dur­ing WW II. The U.S. embassy Berlin recent­ly pre­sent­ed a staged read­ing of the play as part of their Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture Series. Com­ments about this blog are wel­come on the author’s web­site: