I am full of words that leave me hungry

I haven’t got a story, only a way of talking. This could be the start of a good story. But I’m fed up with stories.

It seems human beings have been story-tellers since the beginning of art and language. The telling and hearing of stories is all we do, all the time, in all kinds of ways. Stories are how we make sense of ourselves, how we relate to others, how we create and share meaning, over and over again. We are chronically, helplessly pathological story-tellers. Don’t we ever shut up?

Tell me something I don’t know but please don’t tell me another bloody story.

The universe hasn’t got a story, only a way of existing.

How many stories do you want? In journalism news items are called stories. Holy books are nothing but stories. Science is a story about what seems to be the case for now. A lie is a story about what’s not the case. A novel is a very long story, a joke a very short one. A blues song always tells a story. Telling you how my day went is a mundane story. My dream last night was a fantastical anti-story. Talking with a client in therapy is a story about therapeutic stories.

I wonder how it would be to drop all these stories and live without them. Could we live well in truth, beauty and goodness, and yet be utterly unstoried?

How we fill the dreadful void of our terrifying incomprehensibility with an infinite number of stories is the only story.

Because stories are everywhere and can take me anywhere, I could end up nowhere.

A trashy story, like junk food, delivers real pleasure – for a while. Another story can seem nutritious and turn out to be bad in some way, like a very healthy meal that fails to satiate. The type of story I most desire might not be doing me much good. People talk of being ‘addicted’ to crime dramas and ‘bingeing’ on box sets. Perhaps it’s possible to overdose on stories, fatally.

We’re freakishly clever apes with heads crammed with stories. We don’t know why we’re here or what we’re supposed to do with all this. How then can we not continuously storify our absurdly plotless existence? Who would we be if our lives were still and quiet and constantly untold?

An insect hasn’t got a story, only a way of … insecting?

Perhaps other animals are the answer because for them there are no questions. For other species there is no story and not even an absence of story – as far as we know.

Talking animals appear frequently in myths and legends. Do we yearn for them to tell us a story of who we are, a tale of what it means to be human, as if the stories we’ve been telling ourselves are not enough, as if it’s unbearable to be the only story-making creature?

A therapeutic thought experiment: imagine being someone who takes no story from the world and offers no story back to the world – and imagine that person as great company. What would be their character? What would animate their spirit? I imagine them as someone who had transmuted storylessness into a fullness of being that was unassailable. To have no need of stories would be a profound kind of freedom. To know stories and be unattached to any of them would be liberating. Therapy is a bit like this: it invites you to tell your story and undo it, to set yourself free from it.

Writing these notes I realise I would be hopelessly lost without any form of story at all – even the story of no-story-at-all gives me some direction, something to move towards or away from.

Stories invent us. When we’re not talking about our direct experience, we tell each other something about what we can’t see and don’t feel and don’t know, and we call it a story. Out of all that is happening or has ever happened or could happen in the world, we know almost nothing. The rest of it is imagined at every turn.

Everywhere you look, the world disappears from view.

What’s your story? There are millions of human beings just around the corner, living lives we can only wonder about. The story goes that you and I now are very precisely two of those other unknown millions. Our ordinary nosiness might evoke our compassionate curiosity about everyone else, but we will never know who they are. We stare blankly, chewing on the knowledge that human reality is inedible.

I am full of words that leave me hungry.

Therapy is storyland. All kinds of stories and fictions and dreams and fables are deposited there. Therapists, we might say, act as librarians for this phenomenal archive. As a therapist I can’t help but hear and tell loads of stories every day – I barely know what I forget and what I recall and what I make up. I could tell a story about all these hundreds of stories, and that might tell you something about therapy. But I’m not an obvious choice for the position of archivist.

Jim recommends …

Story-fasting: to spend a day without hearing or telling a story.

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