- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

Narratives are stories that have meaning and which can, through the power of their plot, and the vision of their authors, impart new meaning to the readers or listeners. Narratives are a universal form of expression, belonging to all peoples, to all cultures, in and for all times.

In times of elections, candidates create competing narratives that are proffered to the voting public for their selection. While the telling of tales was understandable for candidates who crisscrossed the nation on horseback and train, visiting people who longed for fresh news and a good "yarn," it is still important today.

Along with polls, storytelling remains the prime way to win votes even in the electronic age when we are surrounded by information and a choice of stories. Last year, Time magazine ran a pictorial map of presidential candidate Al Gore's childhood. Here was the swimming hole where he learned the backstroke, there the school where he learned to read. The geography of the hometown had become the biographical narrative for the candidate.

Narratives satisfy fundamental human needs and desires. In the context of globalization, continued poverty and conflict around the world have grown.

Just as people strive for happiness, they seek the eternal, whether it is the Fountain of Youth or a lasting monument.

Today, we are immersed in circles of narrative: the narratives of different cultures not seeming to understand each other and narratives of scientists who attempt to explain the possibilities of biological warfare, narratives of the individuals who have suffered personally from the recent atrocities, and our own personal narratives that frame our daily existence and fill our imagination as we open the mail and live an ordinary life in extraordinary times.

Narratives are concrete tales in a world of abstractions. They provide explanations for peoples in search of meanings. The most profound mysteries of human existence are surrounded by the threads of narrative. The Bible, the Sutras, the Koran are narratives. Birth and death, the solstices, the change of seasons, light and dark, day and night, all are explained in narrative.

Narratives contain within them the idea of time. History is expressed as narrative and narratives create histories. In a world of constant and ever-more-rapid change, we need a sense of the past. Narratives of the past reassure us, inform and teach us, and even give us the means to create solutions.

Narratives of the future are truly forceful because they necessarily combine vision with the structure of prose or poetry. These narratives allow us to capture our place in time and to reach for eternity, infinity.

Narratives with vision of the future are truly words with power. These visions can be apocalyptic or utopian.

The instinctual ideals of Beauty, Truth and Good, and their negatives Ugliness, Falsehood and Evil fascinate our imaginations. We use narrative to attempt to capture their essence, just as we try to seize a moment of eternity with the creation of a Guernica, a Ninth Symphony.

We need narrative because it is reassuring. It speaks to us on a personal, familiar level. This need to give a human face to the unknown is perhaps the reason the Irish still speak of the "wee folk," the Eastern Europeans of "Dracula," the Scottish of the "monster" of Loch Ness and the Swiss of the "Yeti." Narratives can transmit the traditions and knowledge necessary for preserving the environment and provide the anchor to a place and a lifestyle which people need as they are buffeted about by the winds of change.

Stories are essential because people see themselves in them and identify with them. We can all identify with Hans Brincker. Some may dream of meeting a fairy-tale prince or princess. These dreams are a way for people to transcend the poverty and ordinariness of their existence.

In a world where futility is a word pronounced even by young people, where the scope and number of problems facing us is so great that we are daily confronted with the feeling of our individual, infinitesimal smallness and powerlessness, narratives offer empowerment.

Einstein wrote that "inspiration is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Inspiration circles the globe."

Narrative is a form of art that can be inspired and inspiring. It is both a necessity and a force that can be harnessed for positive change. It is not enough to solve the problems of hunger and poverty in this world.

Roseann Runte is president of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.


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