Sometimes We Need a Story More Than Food

A lecture delivered by Elizabeth Neeld at Seminary of the Southwest
Austin, Texas

img_7009When The Monday Connection committee asked me to give this lecture, I took a moment to review in the seminary catalog what Monday Connection is all about.

Three times a year, speakers from business, industry and the professions make luncheon presentations about how the lessons learned on Sunday connect with their work on Monday.

The first thing that came to mind when I read this description of Monday Connection was the happy juxtaposition of my Sunday and Monday life when I was trying to find a topic for my PhD dissertation. Can you imagine finding a dissertation topic in English literature that hasn’t already been analyzed and discussed? In a field where people have been parsing the language and interpreting the themes at least since Chaucer in the 1400s? It was when our graduate seminar in 18th Century novel read Samuel Richardson’s Pamela that I found my topic. Being the daughter of a minister, I had heard my father read and preach from the King James Bible Sunday after Sunday. So when I started reading Richardson’s Pamela, I recognized at least every few pages that Richardson was quoting a verse or lifting a phrase or even echoing a particular rhythm from the King James Bible. When the professor returned the paper I did on “Biblical Allusion in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela,” he said, “If you change that title to “Biblical Allusion in Samuel Richardson’s Novels,” you will have a dissertation topic. No one has done work on this since 1907, and that study is in German.” It turned out that there were more Biblical allusions in Pamela alone than the German study had found in all three of Richardson’s novels (consisting of a total twenty-one volumes…count them). Sunday had blessedly connected with my Monday work.

But it is a deeper connection that I want to talk about today. My work, since that first day I walked in to teach literature to 14-year-olds in Yakima, Washington (and to find Max Turnipseed, the class clown, climbing along one of the steel girders of the classroom) has been about stories…fiction stories, nonfiction stories, amateur stories, professional stories…stories in books, stories told in every day life. Telling them, reading them, writing them, working to empower others to read and write them. Along the way in my career I did the expected (and, I have to say, really enjoyable) scholarly research. But deep down, always, what has sparked my intellectual curiosity, what has piqued my interest, what has stirred me has been the power of stories.

So I am here to celebrate stories. Particularly to celebrate what a marvelous and amazing thing it is that we human beings tell stories. And to have us remember that our ability to retrieve from our personal story collection just the right story at just the right time is one of the things that helps us shape our world. It may be, as ancient Hasidic writings tell us, that God did create human beings in order to tell stories. It may be that the universe is made up of stories, not atoms, as poets have suggested.

But stories and our ability to tell stories are so much a part of who we are that we forget to take notice. We overlook how the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others help to define our lives. (The exception probably being those people who actually write stories down.) This makes me think of Thomas Carlyle’s remark about human beings’ reaction to the sun at the beginning of the world: the sun comes up and goes down the first day. Absolute astonishment. The sun comes up and goes down the second day…and it ceases to be a miracle. The place that stories hold in our lives is nothing short of exhilarating, if we can only remember. The power of stories to change our lives is nothing short of transformative, if we pay attention.

I think of Martin Buber’s telling a story about his grandfather telling a story: Buber’s story goes like this:

My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher. And he related how the holy Baal Shem used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he himself began to hop and dance to show how the master had done. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. That’s the way to tell a story!

Perhaps, like me, you have discovered that one way to think fresh thoughts about a familiar subject is to look at that subject from some totally different perspective. In the spirit, then, of 21st century mashups, let’s look at the mashup of artificial intelligence and story. Scientists working in artificial intelligence are studying the way human beings tell stories. Because it turns out that one of the problems slowing the advancement of artificial intelligence in computers is the challenge of storytelling.

Here’s an example:

Imagine that a ship captain is taking a ship into a new port. The captain turns to the artificial intelligence-equipped computer to get information that will allow the vessel to enter the harbor safely. The computer can easily present to the captain what AI scientists call general-world-knowledge: information about water depth, rock formations, appropriate speed, etc. But what about story-based knowledge? Does the computer also tell the ship captain this critical story?

The harbor pilot in this port is known to require bribes. When bribes are not paid, unexpected accidents seem to happen.

So, the AI scientists say, it turns out that intelligent machines are going to have to be good storytellers. They will have to be the repository of an extraordinary large number of stories in order to have something useful to say and to be able to index these stories so they can find the story useful in the moment.

So I think it is safe to say that it is likely to be some time before the intelligent computer will response…”Oh, that reminds me of a story.”

Researchers have become so fascinated with the challenge of artificial intelligence and story telling that a new area of study—called Narrative Intelligence—has emerged over the past twenty years. And just as the study of negative space in design (the space around a subject and not the subject itself) or negative space in music (silence in a musical composition) sometimes is as interesting as the actual subject of an art piece or the notes in the composition, so the role of story telling in human intelligence has become a topic of fascination. One AI scientist has written a book that in the opening pages identifies the problem of story-based intelligence for computers. Then follow 241 pages of discussion of the role of story in the minds of human beings. Only in the last three pages does the scientist return to the problem of story telling in artificial intelligence.

This research is valuable for many reasons, of course, but for us today it can serve to jog our thinking about this amazing thing we human beings do. We tell stories. Listen to this scientist’s conclusion:

A normal part of intelligence is to be able to find, without looking for it, a story that will help you know what to do in a new situation. We must be capable of thinking about stories we have acquired in the past to see if one of them matches closely enough to what we need to know now. Story-based knowledge (that’s AI speak for the stories we have available in our memory bank) expresses our points of view and our philosophy of life. The experiences each of us remembers form the set of stories that constitute our view of the world and characterize our beliefs. In some sense, we may not even know what our own view of the world is until we are reminded of and tell stories that illustrate our opinion on some aspect of the world. The collection of stories we have compiled is to some extent who we are and what we have to say about the world.

It’s good to recollect—to keep handy–stories that excuse our own idiosyncracies. William Stafford, the poet, told me this story; and it’s about Niels Bohr, the physicist. It seems that when Niels was a little kid in school, his teachers insisted that he write the way he was supposed to write: every essay should have a beginning, a middle and an end. There are forms one should follow. And young Niels Bohr, in whose head ideas rolled around like marbles, couldn’t learn to follow these rules.

Bill always paused here in telling this story to remark that he had memorized the last sentence of one of Niels‘ essays in order to give himself permission to write in the way that worked for him.

Niels had ended one of his school papers by writing: And I would also like to mention aluminum.

I pulled the following little story out of my story-based intelligence to use as a cautionary tale while I was planning this talk today:

It is reported that Winston Churchill once sent a dessert back to the kitchen with this message: Tell the chef that this pudding has no theme.

Each of us, of course, is a story teller. And the stories we tell—silently in our heads or publicly to others—do shape our lives. One of the things that happens with us and our stories—and I think this goes a long ways in explaining why it is difficult for us to see stories as the gift and resource they are for our daily lives—is that we have, to quote Dr. Verena Kast, our “usual biographical treadmills and habitual conceptualizations.” I once heard Dr. Kast, a well-known Swiss medical doctor and Jungian analyst, talk about this. She was lecturing on her book, Joy, Inspiration and Hope.

One of the findings of Dr. Kast’s research was that we get in a habit of telling the same stories, which means we see our lives again and again from the same perspective. Dr. Kast suggested an experiment: deliberately vary the stories you tell yourself and others by compiling a biography of joy. Remember a time in our lives when we experienced joy and tell a story about that experience. Then remember another time of joy and tell that story. In so doing, she suggested we recover a part of our lives that may have been hidden to us because of our typical biographical treadmill. We see new dimensions of our lives and discover a fresh perspective.

The stories we remember, for example, can also be powerful reminders of who we do and who we do not want to be. Such a story can be like the plumb line a stone mason uses to find the vertical axis through the center of gravity and to lay this center of gravity down as a point of reference.

This story serves as a plumbline for me: It’s a story about a life lived with such authenticity that the authenticity informs even the moment of death.

This story is about Bill Stafford, the poet and friend I mentioned earlier. When Bill and Dorothy were first married, times were hard. Bill had a part-time job teaching and money was tight. One day the young married couple had their first big falling out. Dorothy went for a walk to cool off, and Bill prepared to go teach his classes. When Dorothy wasn’t back by the time Bill had to leave, he cut the one apple they had in two and put the apple on a saucer with this note: With half an apple and all my love.

Fast forward decades later. Bill, now in his early 80s has just died. I called Dorothy, sad beyond words, and she says, “Why don’t you come for a visit?” I go. We are sitting in the kitchen having a cup of tea and she says, “Would you like to see Bill’s desk? It’s where he was working when he had the heart attack. I’d like you to see it.” The small room was as Bill had left it. On the desk was the yellow legal pad on which he had been writing when he died. Down near the bottom of the page—in handwriting that was a bit sideways on the page, squiggly and uneven—were these words: “half an apple and all my love.” To quote from one of Bill’s poems…the authentic is a line from one thing along to the next; it interests us, strangely it relates to what works, but it is not quite the same. It never swerves for revenge, or profit, or fame; it holds together something more than the world, this line.

A story as a plumbline… like the plumb line a stone mason uses to find the vertical axis through the center of gravity and to lay this center of gravity down as a point of reference.

You probably remember Barry Lopez’s National Book Award- winning book Arctic Dreams. Part poet, part philosopher, part naturalist, Lopez wrote in Arctic Dreams about the mysterious connections he found among landscape, memory and imagination when he was on a trip to the Arctic north of Alaska. Reading that or any other of Lopez’s books, you aren’t surprised to learn that, before he became an author, Lopez considered being a Trappist monk and lived for a time at Getsemane Monastery in Kentucky with Thomas Merton.

Lopez wrote another NYTimes bestseller called Crow and Weasel. This is a mythic story about two young Native American boys who leave their village in the plains with the blessings of the elders to go farther than their stories had ever gone…to find out what was so far away that they would never know.

Crow and Weasel travel all the way to the Arctic…through terrible dark forests, often hungry. They see wonderful sights they had never seen before, animals and people they didn’t know existed. Then they start on their way back home to take to their village on the Plains the many lessons learned on their journey: lessons about friendship, respect for others, the importance of gratitude, and the sacredness of relationships.

As they are traveling on their way back home, Crow and Weasel are given hospitality by Badger, who lives in a beautiful lodge filled with painted robes, birdbone breastplates, lances decorated with fur and colored stones, painted shields and medicine bundles. Crow and Weasel, when they start to leave, thank Badger for her wisdom.

“I would ask you to remember only this one thing,” said Badger. “The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves…. never forget these obligations.”

Sometimes a person needs a story more than food.

Selected Bibliography

Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Rethinking Theory) by Roger Shank. Northwestern University Press.

Joy, Inspiration, and Hope by Verena Kast. Texas A&M University Press.

Writing The Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation by William Stafford. University of Michigan Press.

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. Vintage Press.

Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez. Square Fish Publisher.