The Power of a Story
I recently heard a RadioLab story that was, well, moving. It touched upon a feeling that I have, a somewhat romantic notion of love, and I found it to be incredible. By incredible, I mean unbelievable, and by unbelievable, I also mean, “It cannot be true!” Of course, it is just a story. But, stories like this have a way of touching us in profound ways. They touch us at a spiritual level, a level that is seemingly, transcendent. It inclines us to accept the story as being true. This story had this affect on me.
The story was shared by Plato who attributed it to Aristophene in the 3rd century BCE, over 2400 years ago. Aristophene was a Greek playwright, an Athenian comic poet. This love story is interpreted by Robert Krulwich. Robert tells the three minute story in a way that is far more compelling than is the transcript below. You can listen to it here (1-minute-50-seconds into the episode) or read it below. It speaks for itself.
“Once upon a time, he says, people were not born separate from each other. They were born entwined, kind of coupled with each other. So there were boys attached to boys, and there were girls attached to girls, and of course, boys and girls together in a wonderfully intimate ball. And back then we had eight limbs. There were four on top, four on the bottom, and you didn’t have to walk if you didn’t want to. You could roll, and roll we did. We rolled backwards and we rolled forwards, achieving fantastic speeds that gave us a kind of courage.
And then the courage swelled to pride.
And the pride became arrogance.
And then we decided that we were greater than the gods and we tried to roll up to heaven and take over heaven. The gods alarmed, struck back! Zeus, in his fury, hurled down lightning bolts and struck everyone in two, into perfect halves. So all of a sudden, couples who had been warm and tight and wedged together, were now detached, and alone, and lost, and desperate, and losing the will to live.
And the gods see what they had done, worried that humans might not survive or even multiply again. Of course, they needed humans to give sacrifices and to pay attention to them, so the gods decided on a few repairs. Instead of heads facing backwards, or out, they would rotate our heads back to forward. They pulled our skin taut and knotted it at the belly button. Genitalia too, were moved to the front, so if we wanted to, we could.
And most important, they left us with a memory. It was a longing for that original other half of ourselves –the boy or the girl who used to make us whole. And that longing is still so deep in all of us, men for men, women for women, men for women, for each other, that it has been the lot of humans, ever since, to travel the world, looking for our other half. And when, says Aristophanes, when one of us meets another, we recognize each other right away. We just know this. We’re lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy. We won’t get out of each others sight, even for a moment. These are people, he says, who pass their whole lives together, and yet if you ask them, they could not explain what they desire of each other.
They just do.”
As heard on Desperately Seeking Symmetry by Radiolab.