Stories Matter: The Role of Narrative in Medical Ethics

By Rita Charon; Martha Montello | Go to book overview
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Narrative inevitably expresses and transforms who we are at every level of our being: the organic, the symbolic, the social, and the spiritual. This is an immodest claim, I know, but I am only making explicit what each of the other writers in this collection has assumed. I will try to show that stories in all their forms satisfy our deepest selves; that far from being an amusement or an aesthetic patina on our daily lives, narrative is fundamental to our bodies, minds, communities, and souls. It follows that bringing a full understanding of narrative to our work as ethicists changes all our thoughts, all our actions. The narrative urge is central, although occasionally perilous, even in that complicated form of self and other enacted in bioethics practice.


At the organic level, for instance, our bodies give birth to certain narrative ways of perceiving the world. Because our eyes are located in the front of our heads, we usually move forward instead of sidling back and forth like the stem-eyed crab or waving our limbs about like the stationary sea anemone. As a consequence of human motion, we tend to believe in the inherent rightness of plot. That is, we believe with our organic selves in narrative, whose basic delight is, “Go forward, turn the page, to discover what happens next.” Seen from this angle, walking is itself a type of plot line.

Of course, writers have also created radical, experimental narratives that might in this context be called crab or anemone stories. They don’t move forward in the traditional way but are nonetheless born of our cells. Virginia Woolf’s short prose piece “Kew Gardens” is a good example of an anemone story in which, from a snail’s perspective, flowers, insects, and people seem to undulate in an “irregular and aimless movement” 1 Viewed as a whole, however, “Kew Gardens” has a purpose—call it the demonstration of pleasing aesthetic patterns in the natural world from insect to human—just as the fluttering cilia on our cells purposively move fluids over cellular surfaces. Or consider the crablike movement of Kurosawa’s


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Stories Matter: The Role of Narrative in Medical Ethics
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