As anyone who knew me (or ran into me briefly in a social situation) during the late 90s and early 00s can tell you, I spent a summer studying architecture in France. They can tell you this because apparently every other sentence issuing from my lips for several years started with some variation of: “When I was in Paris…”
Oh, your legs are sore? Let me tell you about how sore I was after climbing the steps to the top of the Arch de Triomphe. You get up the spiral ones and thank all the deities that you made it, only to turn the corner and find MORE STAIRS! And then you have to walk back down.
That street reminds me of this time we found this really visually interesting alley between two buildings in this random neighborhood in Paris. And we all crammed around the space between the buildings taking photos. We looked so strange to the locals, who couldn’t figure out what was going on. Was there a dead body or something? Was there someone famous down there? It was hilarious!
We tell stories like this for all kinds of reasons. It’s a way of trying to form a connection with others by relating something you’ve experienced to something they’ve experienced. It’s a way of giving other people information about you in order to shape their opinion of you. It subtly lets other people know what your values are, what you like and don’t like, how you see the world. And if we entertain others, if we prove ourselves good storytellers, it makes us socially valuable.
That’s why we all tell stories, why we’ve always told stories. Humans are social animals, and we need to connect and bond with other people to survive. We navigate the complex social landscape by telling and retelling our stories.
We also create our own set of myths and legends by adopting the stories others tell us and telling them to other people. Just as the stories we tell about ourselves are a way of telling others who we are, the stories we appropriate and repeat are a way of telling others about our “people”. It defines our “culture”. We don’t retell stories to which we are indifferent. We repeat tales which made us feel something significant.
Of course, we don’t really think of it this way when we’re doing it.
How many times, though, have you had a friend or acquaintance tell you a story which was originally yours, only they’ve forgotten that you were the one who told it? It always comes back to you a different version than the one you heard, with details omitted and exaggerated and names changed. Probably you are taken aback by this, and probably you correct their “mistakes” and assert your authorship of the tale. And maybe you’re mad about it. Maybe you’re amused.
But, in the end, the way they tell the story, the parts they keep and the parts they change, are a window into what that story meant to them. The new story is now a legend. It is living the same life all legends live, the same life our sacred texts and most treasured myths lived in the beginning.
That is the nature of myth. It doesn’t really matter where the story originated or if the version we have is “correct”. The stories which are important to us are important in their current form. They don’t contain absolute truth, but they contain information about what we value and believe to be important.
What stories do you tell? And what do they say about you?