Although I get a genuine thrill out of scientific discoveries about how the body works, it’s never quite enough for me. I’m always aware of something else. It’s partly that knowledge that a complex whole human being is so much more than the sum of his or her parts. But it’s also the knowledge that characteristics such as consciousness and highly developed language/communication skills aren’t just other elements which make humans different from all other living creatures. Rather they transform us. Our capacities to remember and to imagine open up whole other ways of being for us.
I’m re-reading one of my favourite trilogies (actually I’m re-reading the first two books in anticipation of the publication of the third and final one…….coming soon in English). It’s Jan Kjaerstad’s The Seducer, The Conqueror and The Discoverer. In the first of these, I came across this dialogue.
I think what I’m trying to say is that every human being could be said to be as much an accumulation of stories as of molecules. I am, in part, all the things I have read over the years. They don’t leave me. They settle inside me like – how can I put it? – like sediment.
So you believe the stories you have heard are every bit as important as the genes with which you have been endowed?
Maybe that’s what life is about. Collecting stories, Axel said, building up an arsenal of good tales, that can be put together in all sorts of complicated ways: like DNA.
If you’re right, then it’s not a matter of manipulating our genes but the stories in our lives, said Jonas.
It’s not the sequence of base-pairs, the genes, we ought to be mapping out, but the sequence of the stories that go to make up a life, and who knows? Arrange them differently and you might get another life altogether.
I certainly find that I gain insights and understanding about life from novels, from painting, from music, from movies and photographs, which I don’t get from a reductionist/materialist science. And I think there’s a lot of truth in this dialogue. Sure, it helps us to understand the mechanisms of molecular function, but if we want to understand living, human beings, then we have to understand how to listen and how to tell stories.
This is a significant part of my work as a doctor…….to understand a person by mapping out their stories and, therapeutically, to help them rearrange those stories in ways which enable them to create a different life.
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