Integral to the life of any human being is our love, perhaps need, for storytelling. We thrive on it, perhaps evolved because of it. Whether sitting by a campfire and retelling stories of old that knit knowledge, skills and superstitions of generations before us together or driving down the M6 engrossed in an audio book, our brains swell and our emotions are swayed but the words we bathe ourselves in.
This week, I was introduced to some wonderful words by Susan Sontag, a Jewish-American writer, film-maker, teacher, and political activist. Whilst describing the role of the novelist she beautifully says he/she, “…is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not. … The work of the novelist is to enliven time, as it is to animate space. …To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.”
Words define us, by being the best way we can articulate ourselves, our beliefs, our thoughts, desires and dreams to others. The words we speak and absorb from others then consciously, or otherwise, shape the people that populate our space and the time we have on this planet.
However, words are not the only way to communicate. We are often told that only 7% of communication is projected through words, and that a heftier 55% of our communication is delivered, often unconsciously, by our body language. Body language in this context is considered to be the gestures and body positions we adopt when we verbally communicate; but our body’s language goes significantly deeper than this. Much more than skin deep.
I read a wonderful article the other day on ‘Ghost signs’. These are the faded, ghost-like images that old adverts leave on the often, crumbling facades of buildings. Whether advertising Capstan full-strength cigarettes that would ‘take the strain’ or Ovaltine, that would ‘prevent night starvation’ (a fabricated medical condition) , these images tell a story of the past, both of our culture and the building they wrap around. In the same way, our skin tells tales on us. Sun-bleached and wrinkled skin tells a story of a hard life spent toiling in the sun; a selection of hand and forearm scars depict days of working with hot ovens; hand callouses speak of hours of dedication in the gym lifting heavy objects.
Seemingly envious of the wonderful Chameleon and its ability to change its outer layer to blend with its environment, we too as humans turn to tattoos to talk to the world around us. Most are chosen, some regretted and ever more intriguingly, a few show allegiance to a more secretive association and life experience with an organisation that needs to tattoo your blood type onto your left shoulder, in case of emergency.
Burrowing deeper, our narratives continue. The way, we sit, stand, walk and run drop countless clues as to our dominant activities and skeletal predispositions. Whatever we most do, we become. Our laborious desk job etches itself into our postural habits, sculpting strengths and weaknesses into our muscular and skeletal systems. Our love of endurance running or road cycling will, over time and reptition, create adaptations that will make these activities more efficient and other movements more onerous. We are what we most repetitively do.
And still the narrative dives deeper. Like Alice falling through the rabbit hole, we spiral towards the skeleton itself and its bony architecture. Just as with any engineered system there are inherent strength and weaknesses. Our body is brilliantly and innately intelligent and adapts to its environment and what you repetitively ask of it. Our bones respond to the amount of stress you place through them and grow stronger alongs the line of greatest demand. We apparently replace 10% of our skeleton per year, but presumably only the bits of it that most need it, which is dictated by what we have done with it.
I recently went through a phase of being irritated with my body, as I felt it was not doing what I wanted it to do and what I used to be able to do. I felt it was telling a different story than I had intended. I have since reconsidered this and shifted my perspective. My body cannot tell a different story to me, it is the most accurate storyteller that I shall ever come into contact with. If it is no longer telling the ‘right’ story for me then I need to start talking to it differently and providing it with a better script. In the words of Susan Sontag, I “must pick one story, well, one central story” and “animate space” in a way that redirects my narrative back to the path I have chosen.
This thought was consolidated by words of Walt Whitman, an American poet, essayist, and journalist who was discussing peoples expectations of poets “they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls”
Isn’t this what our skeleton, muscles and skin represent to us? Wouldn’t it be ideal if we aligned out mental and physical stories to tell the best representation of us, in this time, in this space that we have momentarily carved out?
No matter what story we feel our body is telling the world right now, we can change it. It will adapt to a new narrative, driven by everything we do and everything we think. If negative thoughts can etch lines onto a face and stoop the posture, a different well-practiced script can alter the cell geometry and biochemistry in the opposite direction. Walt Whitman, inevitably, says it better “and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.” Let us all tell the greatest story we can.