Stories we tell ourselves

Conversing Chairs on Pleasant Pond…. Jean Stimmell©2011

According to a recent NYT’s article, scientists are in a race against time, studying the last, remaining groups of hunter-gatherers before they disappear, co-opted by our modern ways.

These foragers reflect our species’ earliest successful way of life, before the invention of agriculture. Scientists are studying them closely to solve a riddle that has long puzzled evolutionary biologists: How did humans learn cooperative behavior such as food-sharing, the care of others, the coordination of tasks, and the acceptance of social norms?

In a word: what made them successful?

There’s no question: we have a world to learn from hunter-gatherers when it comes to sustainability. They have been around for 90 percent of human history without leaving any environmental footprint at all.

In addition, this study confirms other admirable traits, recorded in previous studies as typical for foraging people: “the values of gender equality, friendship and the social acceptance of difference.

The behavior of these alleged “primitives” stands in stark contrast to the polarized food fights and divisive twitter storms that plague our modern, “civilized” society.

On top of that, what gave one tribe the advantage over another, according to the scientists, is an added, magic ingredient: Individuals who lived in camps with more skilled storytellers, cooperated more with one another and, hence, were more successful in foraging.

In other words, success depended on good story telling!

“When asked to choose with whom they would most like to live, they overwhelmingly favored gifted storytellers over those who were known for their skill in hunting, fishing…or medicine. Life, most of those polled agreed, is simply better in the company of good stories.”

This makes perfect sense to me as a writer and a psychotherapist. Our stories are what give our lives meaning. As the poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, the universe is made of stories, not atoms.

David Loy. Buddhist author and teacher who has written extensively on the subject, says: “If the world is made of stories, stories are not just stories. They teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible.”⁠2

But stories can have a dark side, something we are all painfully aware of today as we struggle with our modern media, clogged, as it is, with conspiracy theories and fake news.

By comparing the stories that hunter-gatherers tell with the stories we tell in contemporary America, we can get a sense of what has gone awry.

Hunter-gatherer stories favor cooperation and compromise with each other; they are humble about themselves and their place in the world, knowing that they are only a slim, single strand within the infinite web of nature. Conversely, modern society’s stories favor the primacy of economics: cut-throat competition and survival of the fittest.

British philosopher Alan Watts sheds light on how this change took place. In tribes without formal institutions, social roles were largely undifferentiated; every one was more or less on equal ground.

However as institutions grew more formal, work became separated from family and different classes were formed. Slowly stories changed from promoting cooperation in society to promoting conflict: learning how to control society by pitting groups of us against each other.

No longer do we listen to the skilled storytellers in our midst who personify our essential humanness. Instead, we have fallen under the sway of corporate PR masters who spin webs of control and deploy technicians bearing algorithms that disempower us all.

The story we are living out today, like it or not, is the story of capitalism It is our new religion. We worship the high priests of finance who bow down to the mystical, hidden hand of the marketplace –which they claim if left unregulated by the government — will lead to perfect equilibrium between parties — a shining nirvana beyond the grasp of mere mortals.

But that isn’t the people’s story; it is a myth told by storytellers of the moneyed class to promote their self-interest. Rather than leading to perfect competition between parties, it leads inevitably to oligarchy with the preponderance of wealth in the hands of the few.

One statistic says it all: “The three richest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom half of our country combined –that’s 160 million of us.”⁠4

But we should never give up hope because we, the people, will ultimately tell our own stories. As the late, great Ursula Le Guin said not long before she died: “The power of capitalism seems inescapable– but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any power can be resisted and changed by human beings.



2 David Loy, “The World is Made of Stories, page 3.

3 Watts, Alan. Tao of Philosophy (Alan Watts Love Of Wisdom) (Kindle Locations 83–85). Tuttle

Publishing. Kindle Edition.


Originally published at on February 15, 2018.



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Jean Stimmell

psychotherapist, photographer, wonderer…a barnacle clinging to Earth Mother’s toe