the importance of Stories

Metaphors are extremely important to us – they’re the language of our imaginations, motifs that we can recognise, embedded in our very chaotic perception of the world. Borges wrote once that the whole of humanity is the endless repetition of a very few metaphors.

It’s easy to believe, because they can embody our experiences in an extremely profound way. Think of the Biblical metaphor for coming of age: discovering yourself, losing grace and discovering awkwardness, being ousted from the Garden of Eden. Likewise the Epic of Gilgamesh documents those existential pangs of early civilization – abandoning the animal kingdom, and searching for meaning in a cruel world. Myths and legends are elaborate metaphors, which embed human experiences in narratives that we can understand.

Storytelling of this kind isn’t just for fun: when we listen to a fairytale or a nursery rhyme, Aesop’s fables or the Panchatantra, we’re being given cultural information. The story is a metaphor for something, some piece of experience, which we know to look out for. We learn behaviour from stories, about good children being kind like Jesus, and what happens when you’re lazy, or cry wolf, or go away with the fairies.

In this way we learn to navigate by stories. We need films, books, poems and celebrity gossip to compare to our own lives and where they might lead. We need metaphors to describe ourselves (I’m wandering in the desert), and stories to offer us hope, to show us through the desert or the dark wood.

Eating a poisoned apple has a strong niche in our unconscious: from Eden to Snow White, it’s a powerful image. This apple is a nest of contradictions, truly bittersweet: hard seeds and soft fruit, snowy flesh and crimson skin, delicious fruit, poisoned.

Isaac Newton was knocked on the head by the same fruit that gave Eve self-knowledge. It’s a story we all remember for that very reason. And poor Alan Turing died just like Snow White, eating an apple that he had poisoned with cyanide. We’ll never know whether it was on his mind, but it moves us at least in part because it resonates so strongly with that story. We navigate by metaphors: they’re stars in the night of our unconscious, and they can pull us into their orbit.

We’re lucky if we can make songs, pictures and poems our stars, and this is why it’s so important to have them and even make them ourselves. If we draw a picture or a poem we’re sketching the co-ordinates of our souls: we’re free to make the metaphors work for us, free to journey as we need, free to write our own stories.



the caption of this article is taken from the Temple of the Ancestors in Beijing. the symbols can be seen as spiritually significant metaphors