The Power of Stories in Creating Your Legacy

[This is a spinoff continuation of a previous article.]

So we’ve uncovered the mildly insidious, but mostly innocuous true nature of friendship. We have especially established how valuable validation is in our lives. Next up, I would like to touch upon the nature of personal storytelling in our lives, and what function it plays in providing us comfort.

The Story of You and Me

In this instance, storytelling has nothing to do with slaying dragons or being stranded in the year 1955. Rather, it has to do literally with how you tell the story of your life to other people. For instance, “I forgot to bring my lunch to work today, but then somebody brought in a birthday cake!” is a story. “I got a flat tire on the way to work, got kidnapped by a cult while hitchhiking, escaped by jumping off the back of a truck, got recaptured after I broke my leg in the jump, choked the life out of the cult leader with my bare hands, and consumed his heart so as to become the new cult leader,” is also a story. One might be more exciting than the other, but they are both still stories.

Incidentally, they also both serve the same purpose. When you tell someone a story about yourself, you are creating an oral record of your life. Granted, it is always possible the person to whom you tell the story will forget the whole story five seconds later, but that is still five seconds in which there is a recorded history of your life. The more stories you tell, big and small, the more records of your life you create and disseminate in society.

There is of course a “Telephone” aspect to story dissemination; if someone gives a fifth-hand account of the story of how you spent an hour trapped in an elevator with a prostitute, there is bound to be a level of inaccuracy that did not exist in your original telling of the story. But the degree of accuracy is not so much my focus in this article, and besides, the subjective nature of human experience makes it so that our own telling of our own stories is never going to be entirely accurate in the first place. Instead, I would just like to focus on the fact that these stories of our lives exist at all, and that they exist specifically with people.

Thus, the people who retain the stories you tell them are quite literally your living legacy. If a zebra bursts into the room right now and plays Keep Away with your intestines, the stories of your life will live on with the people who have heard and retained them, no matter how severely the zebra mutilates whatever’s left of you. There is a comforting feeling in knowing that certain aspects of your life will be preserved, even if only in the colorful shades provided by stories. In order to answer why retention of stories provides comfort, we have to go back to our old friend nihilism.

A Quick Pit Stop into Existential Dread

Do you know specifically what any one person on Earth was doing 15,000 years ago? Do you know what any one person was doing where you live 200 years ago? Probably not. The fact of the matter is, unless you make it into the history books (or, these days, Wikipedia), nobody in the future is going to know that you ever lived at all, let alone that you did anything of consequence. Of course, there are a whole host of views and philosophies that would argue that your life specifically matters spectacularly in the grand scheme of things, but none of those views can change the fact that you have no idea what a farmer in England was doing 400 years ago. Does it bother you that, in a thousand years, probably nobody living then will know that you ever lived?

If given the choice, would you at least prefer that somebody living a thousand years from now knows that you ever lived, as opposed to nobody knowing at all?

I will hazard to guess that your answer to at least one of those questions is “Yes,” and if not, then I applaud your lack of ego. But with either question, what I am really asking–in the most absolutely general sense–is if you like to be acknowledged. And I would imagine the answer in all scenarios then would become “Yes,” because the alternative is to be absolutely ignored, and it goes against good sense to desire to be absolutely ignored by everyone. Thus, I would argue that general acknowledgement of yourself by others is the least demanding and most fundamental form of validation. And validation, as we have previously discussed, is a source of value. That means humans value acknowledgement.

Stories are a means–albeit an ephemeral means–of multiplying and extending acknowledgement within our lives. At the very least, this holds true in strictly quantitative terms. If you tell 20 people your story about getting punched unconscious by a neighbor, and 13 people retain that story over time, then your story develops 13 times as much value as it had before, in that 13 times as many people acknowledge the event. Likewise, if you die, but seven of those 13 people survive you, then that is seven living recollections of your life that extend beyond the end of your own life. It is in these ways that storytelling creates value.

Stories vs. Memories vs. Diaries

A great deal of what I have discussed in regard to storytelling above can seemingly just as easily be attributed more generally to memories. If I watch the neighbor punch you unconscious, then there is no need for you to tell me the story of how you got punched out, because I watched it happen. I can tell all my friends about your glass jaw whether or not you provide your input.

Indeed, memories are every bit a source of acknowledgement as stories, perhaps even more so, since they are firsthand accounts. The difference however is that a story is a series of events that you uniquely decided was worth sharing. All stories are the works of curators, even if they are sloppy, loose-lipped, self-centered curators.

When you tell an incredibly embarrassing story in the strictest confidence to your best friend, what you are miraculously doing (among other things) is creating value out of what was a detrimental situation. Assuming your best friend retains your awful story–and thus provides acknowledgement of your life in the process–you have actually managed to leverage your embarrassment for positive gain in a small way. Memories cannot account for such scenarios, because they do not begin with you, and thus cannot be leveraged by you.

Another thing from which stories must be distinguished are diaries. Diaries can come in countless form these days–a literal notebook, a Word document on a computer, a blog on the Internet, etc. What differentiates a diary from a story is that there is no requirement or guarantee that anyone else will ever hear it, and thus there is no guarantee that your personally recorded events will ever be acknowledged.

Interestingly, because of how diverse communication has become through technology, the difference between story and diary can at times be very slight. For instance, a Facebook status can very much be a story, disseminated to everyone on your friend list who decides to read it. A lone Tumblr post that sits out there unread however becomes a diary.

Additionally, the figurative immortality of digital information makes it so that our stories can theoretically exist into perpetuity online these days, so that your funny tweet posted today can still be viewed (probably) in fifty years. This still provides cripplingly little guarantee that anyone will know or care that you ever lived in a thousand years, but boy, it sure is a lot more than the English farmer ever got. How many handwritten letters exchanged between friends even in the past hundred years survive today?

Your Legacy, Forever, for Now

Personal stories are the curated living legacy you attempt to build for yourself. They are a means of maximizing general acknowledgement of your life, which is a minimal but appreciative type of validation. Stories will not prevent you from eventually drifting into obscurity in the annals of time, but they can at least ever so briefly delay its occurrence. And for most people, “ever so briefly” is better than nothing.

Say, have I ever told you the story of how I literally blacked out from rage playing Final Fantasy X?

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