śabda jñānā ‘nupātī vastu-śūnyo vikalpaḥ

I think we all have a friend, perhaps more than one, who has a story, or two, or three.

Especially if the story is a good one, often repeated, and we’ve known the teller for a long enough time, we get to see how it has increased in the telling. We can observe how small details shift, and the significance of the story becomes even greater, and the teller’s part in it more central.

We can see, in other words, how unreliable narration can be, and Sutra 1.9 reminds us of this, saying, “A story that is not rooted in truth is delusion.”

It is not to say that stories are without value. Even a moment’s contemplation will reveal that it is just the opposite–stories can bring us together, can inspire us, can help us forge connections and bridge divides. Some sort of Joe Friday, “Just the facts, ma’am.” recitation is unlikely to achieve that.

But it is for just that reason that we must also remain skeptical of stories–because they also represent a way we may be manipulated, either by others, or by ourselves. How many of us have forwarded some email recounting some story detailing some misuse of authority, or some heart-warming episode, only to find out later that it’s a fabrication? How many things you’ve been forwarded that make your blood freeze or boil have turned out to have their own entry on Snopes?

Don’t dismiss the value of stories, but don’t let them distract you from what is real.

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By Michael Alan Dorman

Programmer, yogi, guitarist, drummer.