The stories we tell ourselves are central to how we engage with the world around us. Stories help us make sense of the world, tell us who we are and why we’re here, and define our purpose for existence. Stories empower us to learn from the experiences, successes, and failures of others, and can guide us as we make difficult choices in our own lives. They can entertain us; instruct us; and, above all, connect us—to the world, to people in other times and places, to each other, and to our innermost selves. Stories remind us of the remarkable constancy in human nature and the human experience, while simultaneously helping us to learn and grow.
We are perpetually interested in questions related to the human condition: What does it mean to be human? Why are we here? What is the best way to live? These stories comprise “The Great Conversation”—the iterative dialogue between thoughtful people across time and place about questions of origin, purpose, and destiny. Studying stories from The Great Conversation across media, across history, and across culture allows us insight into how people have answered these questions for themselves. Doing so helps us become better able to understand who we are and how we can live life richly and, well, in the here and now.
To examine the connection between the storytelling impulse and our implicit desire to understand our lives and our place in the world, you will go on a globe-spanning, time-travelling, media-traversing tour in the 12 lectures of Storytelling and the Human Condition. Your guide is award-winning journalist, author, and storyteller Alexandra Hudson, founder of Civic Renaissance, a community of lifelong learners, which she invites you to join at Civic-Renaissance.com. In this course, she will illuminate the many ways stories shape our lives throughout history and across cultures.
In the Beginning …
We’re storytelling—and story-listening—creatures from day one. According to narrative paradigm theory, conceptualized by communication scholar Walter Fisher, all meaningful human communication occurs through storytelling. This theory argues that, whether we realize it or not, each of us are storytellers, or listeners of stories, at different times in our lives.
This isn’t just true for our own moment—but for people in all times and places. Every civilization and culture have stories they use to explore the big questions of the human condition, beginning from their earliest, pre-literate days. From the art on the walls of caves to oral storytelling traditions to the (much later) impact of writing and literacy, stories are always central to living lives of meaning in our world. As you examine ancient and influential stories like the Enuma Elish of Babylon, the creation story of Genesis, or the histories of Hesiod, you will gain a better understanding of how these earliest of stories share many of the same questions people have pondered across the history of our species.
The stories that Alexandra presents explore the breadth of the human experience: beginning with origin stories and progressing through themes such as suffering, humor, love and sex, pride, death, freedom, and much more. In each lecture, she crosscuts culture, era, and medium to show how stories from different disciplines, people, and places are in conversation with each other across generations and continents. All great art tells a story, as Alexandra shows. Whether you are examining ancient creation stories, analyzing the plays of Shakespeare, diving into modern poetry, or considering the lyrics of a song from the 20th century, you are invited to see how the drive to understand our world and ourselves in story is universal.
The Plot Thickens
The human condition, said 17th-century French polymath Blaise Pascal, is defined by the greatness and wretchedness of man. As there is duality to our nature as human beings, there is duality to our stories. Great stories lay bare a culture’s values and expose truth where we might otherwise not wish to see it, stories to be used for good or for ill. You will learn in this course that as we explore the duality of stories and our human nature, we can see the way that we can use stories to nurture what is best in each of us and diminish what is bad—all for the purpose of leading richer, more joyful, and more meaningful lives. Storytelling and the Human Condition explores questions, such as:
- How do some stories perpetuate division by creating “us” vs. “them” divides?
- Why do we find it necessary to manufacture stories that exonerate us, and help us avoid personal guilt and accountability?
- Who (or what) do we blame for human suffering? Why do we feel the need to blame someone at all?
- Does it matter if the stories that are most important to us are true, if they help us live our lives with greater meaning? What is the relationship between history and myth, and how can both reveal higher moral truths?
- What, if any, is the role of humor and laughter in the face of division, tragedy, and suffering?
- Why do we sometimes delight in stories of other people’s humiliation or comeuppance?
- Why do we so often misplace our meaning in transient things such as lust, love, power, and possessions—and what can we learn from some of history’s greatest stories and storytellers about lasting personal fulfillment in life?
You’ll discover that when it comes to the stories that we tell ourselves, there are few hard and fast rules about the recipe for a life well-lived. But there seem to be certain guidelines to good living that people have arrived at, independently of one another, across history, and that we might benefit from rediscovering, today. As we know, the best courses are conversations that don’t offer pat, monolithic answers. The human condition is too complex for that. But we’ll find that throughout this course, our thinking is refined, and our discussions lead us to more nuanced questions.
We’re All Stories, In the End
Throughout Storytelling and the Human Condition, you will better appreciate the pervasive power of stories. You will explore stories from across history and culture and see that stories are told not only in written form, but also in painting, music, literature, oral poetry, film, and so on. As noted, all good art tells a story of the human condition, communicating timeless truths about our shared fate—and hope—as part of the human community.
What lessons do we take away from the poetry of the first published African American author Phyllis Wheatley, the stories of Russian novelist Dostoevsky, or a classic film like Dr. Strangelove? What are the merits to the stories we’re surrounded by today, such as popular sitcoms like NBC’s “The Good Place” or the HBO satirical drama “Succession”? Does art always need to set out to explore deep questions in order to teach us lessons? As Alexandra highlights throughout the lectures, not necessarily … but it usually does, anyway. Humans create based on our experience of the world, which makes our art a perpetual reflection of our experiences, passions, and pursuits—our greatest hopes and achievements, as well as our darkest thoughts and impulses.
Whether it is a story of thwarted love, a character-building morality tale, an epic adventure, or something as simple as a nursery rhyme, the stories we create and share are a collection of the experiences and desires that make us human. Storytelling is the language of the subconscious mind. It can help us understand truths that facts and maxims alone cannot communicate. As you will discover, the exercise of storytelling, of mining our lives and experiences for stories and insights into the human experience, is the practice of the examined life and the life well-lived.