Human beings are storytellers. There are stories that get repeated in families, in communities, in cultures. From our earliest days, these stories shape our understanding of who we are, how we behave, how others behave, what the world is like, why people do what they do.
Even science is shaped by stories.
So it’s worth questioning: who is telling these stories? Whose stories get believed and retold?
I was listening to meditation teacher Tara Brach interviewed Elizabeth Lesser about Lesser’s new book, Cassandra Speaks: Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes.
Lesser’s book explores the question:
What would be different if the stories were told by women?
Early in the conversation she brings this into the realm of science, with an example that really stuck out for me.
Science is a place where many might believe there are no stories; science is just data and facts. It’s biology.
That may be true. And, it’s also a story.
For decades, it had been established that humans respond to stress and duress by either fighting or fleeing — a nervous system response known as “fight or flight.” Studies showed that certain hormones surge under stress, creating this biobehavioral response. It’s a well-accepted fact.
But that’s not the whole story.
The subjects in the studies that showed the fight/flight response were all men.
In 2000, Shelly Taylor, a researcher at UCLA, found a different stress response in female mammals, including women. Taylor found a surge of different chemicals and hormones that provoked a different response, which she called “tend and befriend”.
To be clear, it’s not that all women default to “tend and befriend” and all men default to “fight or flight.” The point is that what was known to be true was, in fact, not the whole truth. It was only part of the story.
While this is just one piece of what was a very wide-ranging conversation about the stories that shape us, it really stuck out for me because it’s a clear example of something that “everybody knows to be true” that is, in fact, only part of the story.
As we look around at our world today, with its deep divisions, divergent opinions, and disagreements on the basic facts underlying those opinions, it’s worth asking:
What story are you believing, and who is telling it?
And what if that’s not the full story?