Tuesday at work we had a non-scheduled fire drill. The building smelled strongly of natural gas, and shortly after I arrived we were told to evacuate. Fire trucks pulled up while the 1000+ people streamed out. I went to Starbucks and got coffee. In my “old” life, I would have called Rick to tell him about our impromptu fire drill. I’d of told him of just getting in to work and then having to leave. He’d have laughed with me about our good fortune on having this occur on such a nice day, and we’d have chatted for a minute before saying goodbye.
At least once every day there’s something I want to tell him because I know he’d be interested, or just because it would be nice to share. And, I realize once more, that he’s not around to listen to my story.
One of the big questions on defining what it means to be human is to determine how we differ from other animals. At one time there was the idea that humans were tool makers, and that was what made us unique. Then Jane Goodall saw a chimp carefully preparing a branch to use in catching bugs, and in the process clearly creating a tool. There was language, but research on whales has left a question mark. Self-awareness; elephants have it. Ditto for mourning the dead.
I vote for telling stories as a defining human trait. People in every time and culture have had a need to craft a formal memory of things that actually happened, and to create equally well-defined narratives of events that were totally made up.
Stories unite the present with the past by explaining how we got to where we are now. The Jewish Passover seder is a story told in present tense, with the explicit goal of making each generation relive an experience. Every group of friends has a shared treasure trove of “remember when” tales that are brought out periodically. It’s those memories that keep old friends together.
The stories we tell are more than just a plain recitation of the facts; the way a story is told, the meaning that comes from it (the “moral”), help define what’s important to the group and lets newcomers know what they need to learn to join the group. The plot of my favorite Star Trek episode, Darmok, is about an alien race whose language is based entirely on metaphors from their shared stories. Before Picard and the Tamarian captain can start communicating, they have to go through a shared experience that will then become the basis for the metaphors on which the Tamarian language is based. In other words, they need to create a shared story.
Sharing events we’ve seen, describing funny or interesting things seen during the day; these are a small but important part of what it means to have a spouse, a lover, a partner, a friend. Every time I see something I want to share with Rick, I’m reminded – again – that he’s not here, and that I’m alone. I miss the mid-morning “just saying hi” phone call I got every day at work, and I miss having someone to share my day with; someone to share stories with.