Stories are part of everyone’s life, whether we want them to be or not. I believe they’re more than just for entertainment, though. I believe they’re the most important thing in the universe.
Hello everyone. In case you’re not aware, my name is Paul Higginbotham, and I’ve figured out the purpose of life.
It’s all about stories.
That’s it, that’s my talk today. Everyone be sure to have a great rest of your day!
But really, I firmly believe that the purpose of life is to collect, categorize, and live the best story possible.
Where Stories Come From
Let’s start with how we collect stories. We all do it. You’ve been doing it as long as you’ve known language. We collect stories from peers, teachers, parents, television, books, video games, board games, sports – really everything we do is a story.
Stories teach us. It’s how we learn fire is hot and ice is cold. It’s how we learn who we love, and why we love them. It’s how we learn what not to do, and that reminds me of one of my favorite stories to tell.
This story is about my second cousin, Ben. He’s my dad’s age, and they grew up together, and the man is brilliant. Well, he usually is, at least.
So this was a little over 20 years ago. He was celebrating his new wife’s birthday in the Arizona mountains, and was camping with her, his two songs, and his parents. He, his wife, and his sons had biked about 10 minutes from camp, and when the trail got too rough, they walked another 10 minutes or so to a small creek. My cousin saw a snake basking on a rock by the creek, and wanting to impress his new wife, he did the only logical thing: he picked it up.
Let me take a moment to explain that Ben has no fear. He’s into a lot of extreme adventure sports and this was not his first time dealing with a wild animal, certainly not his first time picking up a snake.
So there he was, a 10 minute walk from his bike, a 10 minute ride from his campsite, a 30 minute drive to the nearest town, and he had just picked up a snake. Not something innocuous, like a garter snake mind you. This was a Mojave Rattlesnake, a highly venomous pit viper, who happens to have one of the world’s most potent rattlesnake venoms.
As I was saying, Ben reached down, and being fearless of course, picks up the highly venomous rattlesnake, like you do, right behind the snakes head. Only his grip wasn’t quite close enough to the snake’s head, and the snake, being upset at having his sunbathing interrupted, reached around and sunk its fangs into Ben’s hand.
Mom tells this part of the story the best, but let me see if I can get it right. When a rattlesnake bites you, it has a choice of three different types of bites:
- The “Back off”. There’s little to no venom, just enough pain to scare you away and get you to leave it alone.
- The “Really, I’m serious”. With this bite, the snake typically injects a small amount of venom into the harasser, enough to make it a little sick, and again, enough to get it to leave them alone.
- The “You’re gonna die, sucker.” Again, my mom’s words. Do I really need to explain this one? With this bite, the snake injects all the venom it can muster in an attempt to get free of its harasser and ensure the harasser never bothers anyone ever again.
I think it’s pretty obvious which snake bite my cousin was graced with. He of course immediately threw the snake across the creek, and then began to run back to his bike. His sons cautioned him against this, saying they’d heard that you want to keep your heart rate low, so the poison doesn’t spread, but he countered with the flawed logic of wanting to “thin out” the poison.
Nevertheless, he ran back to his bike, where he vigorously pedaled back to the campsite. Once there, his father (then in his 70s) got in his pickup truck and raced at 100 miles per hour, on mountain roads no less, to my home town, where the nearest hospital was.
Once he got there, the doctors prepared to give him the antivenom serum, to which Ben replied, “Oh, just in case it matters, I’m allergic to horse serum.” For those who don’t know, horse blood serum is one of the base components in snake antivenom.
The doctors were left with a tough decision: do they risk the allergic reaction and give him the antivenom anyway, or do they risk death by snake bite, something that was more and more likely by the moment?
In the end, they opted to give him the antivenom, and used all 8 vials the hospital had on hand. He was then air-lifted to a major trauma center in Phoenix, which was a 30 minute helicopter ride away, where they proceeded to give him another 30 vials of antivenom. That seemed to do the trick and the side effects of the venom finally receded.
I always end this story by stating Ben is also the luckiest man I know. It was only weeks beforehand that he had switched to full medical coverage on his insurance, which was great as the final bill was $178,000.
It’s quite a story, and I think you can see why it’s one of my favorites. It’s got everything: action, adventure, a lesson at the end to not pick up snakes, and a great example of why we need universal healthcare.
How We Remember Them
Once we start collecting stories, we inevitably start to categorize them too. This story fits into a couple categories for me: fun stories to tell at parties, cautionary tales, and family stories.
There are other categories of stories we collect in life though. Stories of things we love, stories of things we hate, stories of things we believe. Religion, in my opinion, is choosing what story connects with the collector most, be it Buddha, Allah, Jesus, or simply Mother Earth.
Many stories in religion started with the oral tradition. Many religious stories were simply told to people, and only later written down. Even Jesus told stories, also called parables, to crowds before they were ever written down in the four gospels. Stories told to you, by a pastor or religious leader, are another form of this. When Reverend Leland gives his sermons, it’s a form of oral tradition. Sure, he’s written it down, but we’re typically not reading it. We’re experiencing it in an audible way.
The Moral of the Story
Let’s talk for a second about morals. We get a lot of our morals from stories as well, be it nursery rhymes or cautionary tales. If you don’t have a religion, this is where your moral compass was likely formed. Was it right for the boy who cried wolf to pretend there was a wolf nearby when none were about? Not at all, and it taught us that in a very serious way. What about Little Bo Peep? She lost her sheep because she was snoozing on the job. Again, morals taught through short stories.
So this is fun and all, but what can we do with this? What does it matter if the purpose of life is stories? For me, it means I don’t feel guilty for trying to collect new stories by watching television or reading books. We are literally made for stories; it’s only natural for us to seek them out.
Representation matters though. To the little African American girl who sees only white women in position of power, Kamal Harris’s story matters. TO the LGBTQIA person who’s trying to find their identity, stories like those of Elliot Page and Neil Patrick Harris matter.
As we collect each other’s stories, don’t forget to write your own, and in doing that, don’t forget that no one writes their life story on their own, not really. People influence one another and that helps change stories. Sometimes it’s not easy changing your own story. I suffer from anxiety; without counseling and medication, I’d be in a tough spot mentally, likely unable to change my story no matter how much I may want to do so. If this is where you are right now, don’t despair. Get the help you need to improve your story. Take a small step and reach out to me or someone you trust to get you started. No one writes their story on their own; there are always other authors who help stories get written.
There are two things I want you to take away from today.
One, stories are important. I’d argue that stories are the most important thing in our lives. They inform our opinions and help shape our lives, and because of that it’s important to remember, once again, representation matters. I have a friend who is an amputee. She told me that seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the highlight of her life, because for the first time, there was a bad ass amputee on the screen as a superhero. Representation matters.
Two, the life you live is your own story. It’s as exciting or as bland as you yourself make it. Sometimes we’re fine living a tame life, I know I am. But if you’re not happy with your story, you don’t need to change it alone. That’s what friends are for, that’s what our community is here for. If you’re unhappy in your story and you want help to change it, please reach out. I’m always available to help, as are many others here today.