Anecdote: The Fuel For Discovering Patterns

It may have been the worst Feast ever, at least for me. Serving as a go-between in a shy and flirtatious relationship between a decent American who spoke no Spanish, and a lovely and decent Chilean who spoke no English who I knew from her flirtatious niece, I simultaneously had to deal with a horrible flu, which left me continually cold with chills and with an unquenchable thirst for water, and which made it impossible for me to speak or sing beyond a fairly soft voice, something which I found to be particularly alarming. After a difficult passage across the Andes to Santiago, I ended up missing my flight, and had to make numerous pilgrimages, while ill, to the airport so that I could get home safely, where it took me weeks to recover from the sickness, during which I managed to lose my job, which is another story altogether. This sort of story is an anecdote, the sort of material that fills many of my own writings and thinking, and which is the stuff out of which the narratives of our lives are made.

And even as an anecdote takes on meaning when it becomes part of a larger narrative pattern, which looks at its significance, so too anecdotal evidence when it comes to matters like health take on greater meaning when they are placed in a context of data which turns the interesting and qualitative story nugget and puts it in a larger pattern. It is our anecdotes that connect us to the life that we and others live, that tug at the heartstrings, that point to the feelings and experiences of others as well. In many ways, our stories are a large part of what makes us human, for we make sense of the world through stories, and connect with others through them, and many of the differences of perspective that we have are revealed in the different stories that we have. For example, as a child my younger brother wrote a story for a school assignment called Skinned Knee, in which his brutish elder brother (namely me) pushed him off of a bike for no reason, and where the glorious denouement of the story was the punishment that I received for this act of violence. Yet as I remember the story, my brother was being particularly bratty and antagonistic, and merely got what was coming to him. At least, at any rate, that is how I remember the story. Both anecdotes may, like the tales of Rashomon or Fractured Fairy Tales or Vantage Point, not coincide in any coherent narrative because the perspectives are so wildly different. Yet we live in a real world in which what we do and what happens to us and what we witness are not merely illusions but actualities, and we have to recognize that while our perspectives are different, maybe in contradictory, that there is at the base of the story some reality that includes the perspectives but also transcends them.

One of the ways in which we better understand reality is to put it into a larger context. We do this in a narrative by putting an anecdote within a larger tale, perhaps in an essay like this one that seeks to use it as an illustration of some greater truth, or by putting it with a lot of other anecdotes in the form of a memoir that would make sense of a given event by pointing out the context of a life that showed the same sort of matters, either good or bad or a mixture of the two, happening over and over again. As one wise man said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And so it does—as beings our lives are part of larger patterns, and our anecdotes are therefore not without importance, although in order to be understood they must be taken as part of a larger context that gives them meaning and relationship. It is these larger contexts that provide the explanation for why we behave as we do, and what sort of vanity and futility we can expect to find without something fundamental about our lives being changed. We are creatures of hope and longing, but also of fear, and there is reason enough for both fear and hope, for both longing and terror, for both optimism and despair. The choice is based on temperament and on various other factors, but it is a choice to be made nonetheless, and a choice that has meaning and importance only as part of a larger tale, of which the individual anecdote is a small but noteworthy part.

The other way in which we place anecdotes into their larger picture is to reduce them to data, and then aggregate the data. For example, I happen to know an alarmingly large number of people who are complaining about the same set of symptoms, including bloody noses, strep throat (or at least feeling like they may have strep throat), a high fever, and congested sinuses. The result is a flu, but a particularly serious one. Each of the stories of people staying home from school or work, or throwing up, or some other sort of dreadful condition that sometimes has even required going to the hospital in at least one case I know of, is an anecdote. Together they could be turned into a book about a particular virus, but such would not be of the greatest use to advocates of public health who would want to study the spread of contagion and its severity, and to make conclusions on the data, or to test the efficacy of various treatments in some scientific fashion. And so the anecdotes are reduced to data, smoothing out the rough edges that make for a compelling and interesting story, and focusing only on the facts, as it were. Something is lost in this, the vitality of life and its distinctive individual qualities. Yet something is gained in the ability to aggregate individual experiences, or at least some of their key aspects, into a larger whole. People who study mathematics and science and engineering and related fields do this sort of thing all the time, seeking to aggregate individual actions or occurrences into larger patterns that can then be used to formulate and test strategies and understand at least some aspect of a complicated situation.

We may often feel torn between the narrative and the data. I know I feel torn myself, being a person who both loves stories and tells them often and enthusiastically and also someone whose working life is spent plowing through and aggregating large amounts of data. I could hardly give up either telling stories or dealing with data, as both of them are aspects of who I am. And yet the two are often in conflict—the push towards quantification and data impels me to look at the larger picture, to seek patterns and insight, but at the cost of reducing the human element of the stories that make up the data [1]. On the other hand, the push towards narrative and anecdote which is strong in me pushes me to communicate with others and to connect with others even at the risk of losing sight of the larger picture of life. I choose to deal with this by keeping both approaches in mind, and seeking to use them where they are appropriate, and never thinking that either alone is the whole story, at the risk of making my life more complicated and filled with more tension than it already is. It is a risk that I am willing to take because I am a complicated person whose life is filled with continual tension between contrary pulls, so I figure the practice is useful. There are both enough dramatic anecdotes to make it imperative that I deal with the story aspect of life, and I have a strong enough pull towards relationships and communication to make it essential to become more proficient in such matters, while at the same time my native pull towards abstraction and pattern-finding is also strong enough to compel me to engage in those areas as well. One can hardly help if the result is immensely complex; we must deal with the reality, and that includes who we are and what kind of world we live in, according to what is. If we seek to end up in an ideal, we must begin with the real, and that means both having an ear for anecdotes and an eye for data, without forgetting the fact that the individual story draws meaning from being part of a greater whole, and that the data is only part of a larger story with the distinctive elements smoothed out. Let us not forget either the grain of sand nor the pearl that is formed as its rough edges are smoothed, for both are aspects of our reality, and neither is the whole story isolated individually. So it is with much of life.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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