The stories we tell

Opinion by Adesuwa Agbonile
Jan. 9, 2018, 3:00 a.m.

New Year’s is my favorite holiday. I love fireworks, I love staying up late, but mostly, I love making New Year’s resolutions and I love the feeling of waking up and feeling like a new and different person, in a new and different year.

A lot of my friends don’t understand this. Our calendar years have no intrinsic worth, they’ll tell me. The earth has made a full revolution around the sun, based on a mostly arbitrary starting point. You’re not a new person, and nothing, really, has changed.

And yet, the years do matter. We measure everything in specific times, pinpointed dates. It would be absurd to book a flight that would take off two months from now, and then show up three days later to board it, because you chose a different starting point for the Earth’s revolution and so you measure your dates differently. Sure, our calendar year is completely arbitrary, but it’s important because we’ve all collectively decided it’s important. And that means that when an old year ends and a new one begins, I’m allowed to be happy about it and make high-flying New Year’s resolutions that will inevitably be broken by the time February begins.

So, it seems, our calendar year is really nothing more than a story. A really, really elaborate story, that’s been told for centuries, but still. Just a story.

The author of “Sapiens,” Yuval Noah Harari, posits that humans’ ability to tell stories is what sets them apart from all other species. Our ability to “create and believe fiction” is what allows us to cooperate and understand each other in a way that all other species simply can’t. We use stories to understand the world. We think in them — they are familiar and comprehensible to us.

And there is no one better at telling stories than our President. Stories that people want to hear. He crafts stories that remind people of forgotten histories, that collectively ease our anxiety about the past by painting it in golden yellow hues; the West Virginian coal miner listens to this story and loves it, lives it, crawls inside of it and becomes it.

I do this too. I am wrapped in countless stories that I have been told about myself — my parents tell me stories, over and over, about how I am Nigerian; they drill into me my Nigerian-ness, and inevitably I become Nigerian not just by blood, but by the way I think about things, the way I talk, the things I gravitate towards.

Political pundits usually like to measure things in facts and numbers. This policy helps this many people, so it is quantitatively this good. This tax adds this amount of money to the debt, so it is empirically this bad. And this mode of thinking is incredibly important — especially when you’re a policymaker. But often, they forget to address the stories behind the policies our politicians push for. And those stories are arguably just as important — if not more important.

Jon Favreau, one of the hosts of Pod Save America, once said that the foundation of democracy is persuasion. In order to get someone to vote for you, or your idea, you have to convince them that your idea is the best. That your platform is the best. I think when you’re constantly enshrined in politics — like I am — it’s easy to lose sight of the humanity in it. You measure things in wins and losses, quantifiable marks on an endless score sheet. But persuasion doesn’t usually come in the form of sheets of numbers or jargon-filled policy briefs. It comes in the form of stories that people can believe in, and get behind — stories that can be wrapped up into neat little catchphrases, like “Yes We Can,” “Stronger Together” or “Make America Great Again.”

This has interesting ramifications when we think about it in the reverse — when we are trying to dissuade someone of something, often, spouting facts at them isn’t the best thing to do. You can crunch the numbers on the GOP tax bill a million times to explain to someone why it’s such a deeply troubling policy, but if their president has told them a story that they love, that they believe, they will trust the story more. So, it seems, poking holes in the fiction we are given is more important than simply poking holes in facts.

I’ll be honest — I’m not quite sure how to do that. Stories take time to embed into the centers of people’s minds, and when they take hold, they are hard to shake free. But to be more conscious of the stories we tell — and don’t tell — is somewhere to start. Who knows — maybe that’ll be my New Year’s resolution for this year.


Contact Adesuwa Agbonile at adesuwaa ‘at’

Login or create an account