What makes us different from all other species? When I was a boy, I recall being told that humans had the biggest brains, which made them the most intelligent creatures. Another sign of our exceptionalism was sentience, being able to perceive or feel, to have consciousness.
Scientists cite plenty of evidence that mammals, birds, and even octopuses exhibit a conscious state, so we’re not alone as sentient beings. Intellect is manifested in countless ways among other species. Communities of elephants, whales, and dolphins reveal complicated exchanges and a remarkable grasp of complex ideas and emotions. Ravens, rodents, macaques, gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants and sea otters have been observed fashioning and using tools.
I hear your retort. Human beings have an advanced technical facility, an ability to make things, transform their environment, and study themselves. It’s clear they’re a prominent (and dominant) life form.
Yes, we’ve certainly made our mark on the earth. We’ve also made a mess of it. Some would argue that the very way we’ve engineered the destruction of a sustainable environment proves that we’re a foolish and careless species; which gives us no right to pat ourselves on the back for intelligence or sentience, for that matter.
However, I’d like to raise a special gift we have.
I’m talking about telling stories. We employ them to explain ourselves; to entertain, get a laugh, draw tears; to show empathy; find common ground; make excuses; sow peace and turn enemies to friends. The question, “How was your day?” is an invitation to tell a story. When a friend says, “You’ll never believe what just happened to me,” it’s the beginning of a tale that promises to put you in her shoes, or evoke his envy, invite congratulations, or provoke a smile. The phrase that begins, “something like that happened to me, once . . .” offers shared experience, community and comfort. Stories are our currency as social beings. The stories we tell each day not only teach, they cure loneliness, end solitude, forgive and absolve guilt, and make a cold, unfriendly world warmer.
This is not to say that stories are all good. Wars have been started with stories, but peace has also been maintained with them. I cannot think of anything else that changes people as easily and simply. Stories provide that most valuable of qualities: hope. We can right wrongs with them, solve big mistakes, change minds and stir people to action. Perhaps we can even engineer our own salvation on this planet.
That’s an extraordinary thing for mere words to do.
Images and text copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen