Stories  (edited)      Tonya Alexandri, September 21st, 2020

We are nestled in the story of life on this planet – part of it”  Alice Roberts & Andrew Copson

“All creative people feel that the source of their creativity comes from the same room as their deepest pain” Rosanne Cash

Story is a fundamental part of our human nature and our cultures and a great part of our energy goes to creating and sharing stories and trying to make sense of things. We are all story-telling and meaning making creatures. Graham Swift writes: “Only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. But man – let me offer you a definition – is the storytelling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there’s a story, it’s all right” (cited in Alice Roberts and Andrew Copson, 2020). We create and share stories and are part of others’ stories, and ultimately, we are part of the same much longer story of our species and life on this planet. We write, paint, sing, dance and tell diverse stories both of the origins of our species and of our lived experiences, of the distant past and of the future. Our subjectivities become known through our oral, visual and written stories. We even fight battles and persecute others defending our stories and we go to great lengths to suppress new narratives. Some stories are based on evidence and observation, some have been verified, and some are the products of our imagination and meaning making need. Stories can shape our lives for better or worse, inspire us, provide models and guidance, console us, distract us, mislead us, manipulate us, imprison us, control us, awaken us. They can be toxic, disempowering, entertaining or healing. The musician Rosanne Cash says “Persist and verify… The power that we abdicate to others out of our insecurity — to others who insult us with their faux-intuition or their authoritarian smugness — that comes back to hurt us so deeply… But the power we wrest from our own certitude — that saves us.” We have personal stories and collective stories, and ultimately, we are part of the same and much bigger story of the trajectory of our species on this planet. And if we could remain present to the fact that we are all part of a much larger and longer common story we could tap into the truth of our interconnectedness with each other and all nature and our inherent capacity for empathy despite our great diversity.

In The Little Book of Humanism: Universal lessons on finding purpose, meaning and joy, Alice Roberts and Andrew Copson write: “Once we understand that we are all part of the same species and the same long story, it is possible to feel a connection with all people, everywhere. We can imagine ourselves in their position and know that what happens to them, could happen to us…. one of the best ways to develop empathy is to read stories. Whether historical or fictional, stories about particular individuals enable us to experience different lives.” Through engaging with art, reading stories and watching films we get an opportunity to reflect on the characters’ lives, aspirations, sorrows, actions, decisions, reasons behind their behaviours, underlying forces and dynamics, contexts. We wonder what we would do in their situation. Through feeling their emotions and imagining being in their shoes we get to develop empathy. Failure of empathy reflects our inability to imagine ourselves in other people’s situations and recognise what it would be like to be homeless, starving, imprisoned, sick or oppressed, for instance. And more than a failure to imagine what it would be like, it is also, a failure to feel. Developing empathy could come about through presence while hearing other people’s stories, Stories in all forms, oral, written, dramatized or animated, can reveal to us what it is like, for instance, to have one’s humanity denied, to be ill and lonely, to have lost one’s family, work, money and community, to be seeking refuge in often hostile new and unknown lands. Through stories we also gain awareness of our own life, observe similarities, find inspiration and connect to our common humanity.

Through art and stories we can discover new ways of being and doing things. We gain clarity. We contextualize our experience. We find that our deeper and intimate thoughts and emotions have been experienced and expressed by others. We feel connected to groups of people that might be or have in the past been through similar experiences. We catch glimpses of a much bigger picture. We get in touch with our indignation, we feel inspired and moved, we feel gratitude. Alice Roberts and Andrew Copson write: “The arts in all their forms – paintings, music, novels and poems, films and plays – are essential to our lives. They sharpen our awareness, enrich our understanding of the world and open our eyes to its beauty. They hold up a mirror to our own past and current experiences and open us up to new perspectives and different ways of being. Have you ever been sad and felt like listening to a sad song? It is a profound moment to have what were your own private thoughts expressed in a beautiful way by someone else. Art and stories can show us things outside of our own experience, helping us to understand our own emotions better on reflection. Art – any kind of art – can give us more clarity about our own thoughts and feelings, connect us with others, and teach us something about ourselves and them.”Art and stories may awaken us to new possibilities and bring about new reflections on our own life, force us to think to what extent we have chosen our life adventure or have followed a path predetermined by others. Stories awaken us to sociocultural forces and scripts handed down to us. They urge us to read our own story again, understand where we’ve been and maybe where we are going, discern patterns, write a more coherent script, make new meaning of events, realise that we are to some extent writing our stories minute by minute within the container that we find ourselves. Through creating a more coherent life narrative we often get to see the various components and events as woven into an ongoing narrative into which they fit, and which makes us own our life.

Stories may influence our choices and life decisions, but not all stories are good stories. In an article I read recently, the humanist philosopher, Richard Norman, writes about how stories can give meaning to our life from within by asking whether the different bits of our lives hang together, and what they all add up to. We can start by asking the question of whether we can tell a coherent story about our lives and what story we can tell about our life. Of course, in thinking about our lives we all draw on our shared repertoire of stories within the cultures that we have grown up and live in, especially, the stories of our early formative years when we are way more impressionable. Not all stories are helpful templates or examples to fashion or make sense of our own lives. Richard Norman refers to how traditional stories of heroism may lead someone to build their life around an unrealistic ideal. He writes: Joseph Conrad’s great novel Lord Jim is a story about the pernicious role of trashy novels. Jim goes to sea ‘liv[ing] in his mind the sea-life of light literature. He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through surf with a line… – always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book….. Conrad’s novel is the story of a man who has to spend the greater part of his life coming to terms with his failure of heroism. We do not just need stories, then. We need good stories. We need novels and films and dramas which sensitize us to the complexities of experience, attune us to the realities and ambiguities of human life and thereby help us to make sense of our own lives.”

A biopic I watched a few days ago around the life of Marie Curie, with the title Radioactive, directed by Marjane Satrapi, the creator of Persepolis, made me think about how each narration and reading is imbued with our own subjectivity and personal lens of viewing things and life. This is part of what makes each creation unique. I thought of the hundred different ways the story could have been told, seen and understood considering how our diverse experiences, beliefs and skills create a multitude of combinations of components that make up a story. Reading a few reviews after watching the film also brought home to me that there can be as many takes and evaluations of a story or work of art. We are diverse and differently motivated, What good novels and films and other forms of story can do is not only bring other people’s experience alive, but also, connect us to our shared human experience and values, as well as, make the bigger sociocultural milieu visible. In Radioactive we get a chance to watch scenes of Marie Curie’s personal life, her work and discoveries and how they changed the world for ever, for better and for worse. We consider how knowledge can bring forth both good and bad and that sometimes progress and advance come at a high price. We think of the consequences of deeds. We see that when people create and discover things and put them out in the world they cannot always control the use of them. There are good and destructive forces in the world. Curie’s hard and brilliant work gave birth to advances in treating cancer and the invention of the X-ray, which revolutionized medicine, and a looming threat of nuclear warfare and meltdowns. There’s an almost surreal scene of the Nevada desert nuclear testing procedures in the ‘60s, where a model town with perfect houses equipped with expensive life like perfect dolls and furniture are bombed. We watch as everything melts and sinks into the ground. We also watch a little boy receiving treatment for cancer in the early 50s, and also, his father’s concern about whether his child is to be experimented upon. There’s a scene of Pierre Curie’s haunting Nobel acceptance speech and the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

This biopic has many story threads. It does not only explore the complexities of the leading character of this story. Through flashbacks and “flash forwards” the film traces the career trajectory of Marie Curie (played by Rosamund Pike), the Polish immigrant born Maria Skłodowska, who left her country because she was not allowed access to higher education on the grounds of being a woman, and then, went on to become the first and only woman to win two Nobel prizes and the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and also, a mother and wife. We witness her courageously unconventional life, the bigger sociocultural and political milieu, as well as, her losses and hardships, as we are simultaneously awoken to the future consequences of her work. The threads are woven together giving us snapshots of the many scientific, personal and societal hurdles that Marie Curie faced in her time. We witness the refusal of a male dominant culture to provide space and support and acknowledge women’s contributions. We also, witness the devastation after her husband’s death, when he slipped under a horse-drawn cart and then scenes of a worn out Marie and her daughter Irene hauling X-ray units to mobile field-hospitals during World War I. We witness her integrity and perseverance through illness, social pushback and tragedy. She persisted even though her exposure to radiation was making her sick like it had ,made her husband previously, eventually leading her to her death from aplastic anemia in 1934. We witness the public scrutiny of her life and we get a glimpse of the cultural norms and xenophobia when her affair with a married man after her husband’s death had crowds screaming insults in the street outside her house and demanding her deportation to Poland as a suspected Jew.

Through reading and watching stories we get to feel a variety of emotions, reflect and ask questions. In this case, we might feel awe at her dedication and passion and we might wonder whether we would have persevered or we might be struck by her certitude of what she loved to do. We might wonder what brought about her fascination of minerals and stones…. We catch glimpses of what fascinated both Pierre and Marie as children. We might wonder about our own childhood fascinations or dreams. We might connect the story of Curie to all women across time that have tried to resist living in the shadow of a man and the precariousness of this arrangement. We might focus on the thread that shows how when we lose someone we love the traces of the deceased person’s life persist in many ways, through their actions and the positive or negative consequences of these, through their works and their descendants, and through our emotions and memories of them. We carry their legacy forward in the human story. We might project ourselves onto the stories or even reflect on how it is to live the lives of others through acting and performing roles and how actors and actresses might be changed by the roles they take on and the experiences they internalize while immersing themselves in the lives of their role characters.

Finally, as we engage with Marie Curie’s story we might reflect on what might have been if this genius woman had tended to her wounds and had taken better care of herself. Might she perhaps have shifted her energy towards other objects. In her poem, Power, dedicated to Marie Curie Adrienne Rich writes:

“…. She must have known she suffered from radiation sickness

her body bombarded for years by the element  / she had purified

It seems she denied to the end

the source of the cataracts on her eyes

the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends

till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying her wounds

Denying her wounds came from the same source as her power”


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