June 20, 2010

Appreciating the disconnects

Stories can be a potent method for trying to make sense of the inexplicable.  Basic story structure—beginning, middle, end–is such an effective way to organize events that we often use it to carve meaning out of what would otherwise be random or chaotic occurrences.

It seems to me it’s easy to forget this point in an organizational setting where, when stories are elicited, they are assumed to be coherent.

Michael Sims makes this point especially nicely while ruminating on the evolution of vampire stories from peasant folktales in the 1800s.  Sims surmises that dead bodies were a frequent sight for everyday people, who could not understand the process of decomposition.

Many natural changes after death were judged to be evidence that the late lamented had turned into a bloodsucker. Like hair, fingernails don’t actually continue to grow after death,but as fingers decompose, the skin shrinks, making the nails look abnormally long and clawlike. You begin to look as if you’re turning into a predatory animal. Dead skin, after sloughing off its top layer, can look flushed and alive as if with fresh blood. Damp soil’s chemicals can produce in the skin a waxy secretion, sometimes brownish or even white, from fat and protein—adipocere, “grave wax.” In one eyewitness account from the 18th century, a vampire is even found—further proof of his vile nature—to have a certain region of his anatomy in a posthumous state of excitement. The genitals often inflate during the process of decomposition.

Faced with such fearful degradation, who wouldn’t start looking for explanations?

The next time someone tells you a story that is outrageous, overly conspiratorial, or seems to be disjointed, they may be seeking to make sense of events, rather than recounting a story that is fully formed and need only be recounted.  Appreciate the disconnects–instead of demanding coherence or seeking to correct them–and you are likely to learn a lot about how individuals are experiencing what is going on around them.

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