One of the most fundamental of all human activities, perhaps the fundamental activity which separates us from other parts of the biological world, is telling stories.
When one person tells a story to another, many things happen. An intense connection is established between the storyteller and the listener. There’s a giving and receiving of attention. There’s a sharing of emotion. Perhaps most important, there’s a mutual effort to make sense of the world.
Which is to say, there’s a quest for truth.
To be sure, truth – pure, unedited, unadulterated truth – is beyond the capabilities of the human mind. Our brains are not wired to comprehend everything at once, and make sense of it. Nor are our five senses capable of taking in everything that happens around us.
To learn anything at all about the world, we learn, as small babies, to begin ignoring some of the stuff going on around us in order to pay closer attention to the stuff that matters. Thus, the infant calmly nursing at his mother’s breast may be in a busy public place, filled with all sorts of visual and auditory stimuli. But that infant has already learned, or instinctively knew at birth, what really matters in all that activity.
Within a year or so, that infant will begin attending to stories, often in the form of songs, told or sung in the language which will become his native tongue. And from those stories, he will begin to shape an understanding of the world in which he lives.
I had learned to read by the time I turned four, but many of the stories which shaped my thought processes were already part of my mental equipment. My mother and father both sang to my sister and me, and, for that matter, to each other. Theirs was a true love, and their songs were the romantic songs of the era around World War II. Without question, some of my earliest lessons in life involved the power and goodness of romantic love.
We also had stories or poems read to us at night, mostly from Volume II of an incomparable little treasure called Childcraft. The poems were sometimes whimsical, sometimes haunting, sometimes even dark. To this day, I can still remember the humane silliness of “The Raggedy Man”, the romantic tragedy of “The Highwayman”, and the longing of “Sea Fever”.
Most of all, perhaps, I remember a poem called “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, which told the story of six blind Hindu wise men who went to “see” an elephant. Each grasped the part of the elephant nearest him, and assumed that he understood the nature of the whole beast. One believed the elephant to be like a spear, another a snake, another a fan and so forth.
I am certain this poem explains my adult skepticism of all religious dogma, and rejection of religious intolerance. For these, I will always be grateful to my father, and to poet John Godfrey Saxe.
A few years later, Dad started reading us poems by Rudyard Kipling, sturdy, manly poems about travel, adventure, war and duty. I absorbed these lessons, too, including the daunting challenge of Kipling’s “If”, perhaps the greatest lesson in humility every put on paper.
When I went to college, I found that stories had much to do with the way I understood the world. That’s probably why I embraced history as a major - and why I later spent over a decade of my life teaching that subject to younger people.
And that’s almost certainly why, at some point in my life, I was destined to wind up on stage.
As it turns out, I was 39 when I did my first play as an adult, and 42 when I turned pro. Acting has become a central part of my life and through acting, I have come around to an appreciation of the greatest of storytellers, William Shakespeare.
Story-telling also led to my becoming a writer, of sorts. This column, and other writing I have done, all spring from the week I spent in Manchester, New Hampshire in the winter of 2003-2004. I went to New Hampshire to knock on doors for Howard Dean, but I also wrote daily accounts of my activities and sent them to the Progress-Index for publication. That led to columns, first for that paper, and soon for the Village News.
For the past few years, and especially while taking care of my mother, I began to wonder what the next chapter of my life story would be. The answer came through a series of seemingly unrelated events, beginning late last year.
As a result, at 61, I’ve decided to set out on a new adventure, designed to turn me into a better story-teller.
But first, as all story-tellers know, it is time for the cliff-hanger...