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Humans have been telling stories ever since we began talking. Stories have become a kind of tool, as powerful as an ax or an arrow. In our series "The Human Edge," NPR is looking at the things that helped our species succeed. Today, NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton has our latest report on how stories affect what we do with our lives.

JON HAMILTON: Not so long ago, Shaun Parker was waiting offstage at a club in Hollywood. He was about to stand in front of hundreds of people, and tell a story he'd been working on his entire life.

Mr. SHAUN PARKER: I was so nervous, I felt like I wanted to throw up.

HAMILTON: It was more than stage fright. Shaun says what was at stake for him was pretty much everything.

Mr. PARKER: I'm like, this is it, right? This has been the dream, to come out here. And there's actors and there's writers, and there's directors out here, and the people that are true storytellers - 'cause I'm just some guy coming from Wisconsin.

(Soundbite of applause)

HAMILTON: Menasha, Wisconsin. It's a smallish city on the northern tip of Lake Winnebago. It has lots of paper mills, and good sledding in the winter. And that's where Shaun's story begins.

Shaun Parker was born in 1969. He's the youngest of four children. When he got to eighth grade, a teacher had the class write letters to themselves. The topic: how they saw their future lives.

Mr. PARKER: I wrote - well, you know, what do I want from the future? I guess find somebody that I love and work in a mill, get a house, and have some kids.

HAMILTON: That was pretty standard for kids growing up in Menasha. And it was pretty much what Shaun's father had done. Four years later, Shaun's teacher sent back all the letters. When Shaun read his, he realized he'd already started rewriting his future.

Mr. PARKER: I liked the idea that I was meant to be something more. I always said that we're kind of the sum total of the decisions we make in life, and I just felt like I could very easily make the decisions that lead me away from that path of being more, whatever it is.

HAMILTON: So Shaun started planning a life beyond the paper mills, beyond Menasha.

Antonio Damasio, from the University of Southern California, says Shaun was doing something we all do. Although we're not aware of it, he says, we think about our own life as if it were a story in the making. That's how our brains are wired.

Professor ANTONIO DAMASIO (Behavioral Neurology, University of Southern California): You're constantly rearranging the narrative of your life. And you're rearranging it, of course, as a function of the experiences that you have had, and as what you imagine your experiences in the future ought to be.

HAMILTON: Damasio is a behavioral neurologist. He says humans have a unique awareness that their own lives are stories that begin when we're born and end when we die. And because we know we're going to die, we are not satisfied with just surviving, day to day. To give our lives meaning, we strive for what Shaun calls something more.

Damasio says you don't see that in other species.

Mr. DAMASIO: I have enormous respect for nonhuman creatures, but I don't think we're going to get them to consider there's something more that they can be or that they ought to be. And this is what humans clearly excel at.

HAMILTON: It's that drive that pushes humans to do new things - explore distant lands and build great civilizations. We're drawn to tales of remarkable people: Odysseus, Joan of Arc, Mohammad, Confucius.

Shaun always admired his father. He was a pragmatist who never gave up. But it was the people Shaun saw on screen that would shape his own life story.

Mr. PARKER: Well, I just was always amazed that I could go into this darkened theater, right, and somebody was able to make me cry, able to make me laugh, or make me able to just have these emotional rides.

HAMILTON: One movie, in particular, inspired Shaun - "Excalibur." It retells the legend of King Arthur.

(Soundbite of movie, "Excalibur")

Mr. NIGEL TERRY (Actor): (as King Arthur) Merlin, why have you done this to me?

Mr. NICOL WILLIAMSON (Actor): (as Merlin) Because you were born to be king.

Mr. TERRY: What does it mean to be king?

Mr. WILLIAMSON: You will be the land...

Mr. PARKER: It just speaks of greater things than ourselves. I remember seeing it and just, it made me want to believe in destiny.

HAMILTON: And it made Shaun wonder how he could make something special of his own life.

King Arthur was destined to defend his country against the Saxons, and search for the Holy Grail. Damasio says something happens to us when we absorb a tale like that.

Mr. DAMASIO: We begin by being spectators of a story.

HAMILTON: Shaun sees "Excalibur."

Mr. DAMASIO: And then very rapidly, we turn that into our own story.

HAMILTON: Shaun realized the Holy Grail was probably beyond his reach, and the Saxons weren't invading Menasha. So he focused on the quest for true love. King Arthur had his queen, Guinevere.

Mr. PARKER: I had a couple girlfriends but, yeah, I got bored quickly. Like, it was easy to find fault and be like, is she really my queen?

HAMILTON: Then he saw Heidi.

Mr. PARKER: I was in the cafeteria. And I remember looking over, and I saw her walk in, and time kind of slowed.

HAMILTON: Destiny. But for a chivalrous young man, there was a problem.

Mr. PARKER: I was kind of stumped by the fact that I was a senior and she was a freshman, and that did not feel right.

HAMILTON: So, he decided to wait. He'd just be Heidi's friend until she was older. But it was hard. After 18 months, Shaun decided he had to declare his love.

(Soundbite of song, "Wait")

Mr. MIKE TRAMP (Singer, White Lion): (Singing) Wait, wait...

HAMILTON: He made Heidi a video. Picture a good-looking, all-American kid with a mullet, wide lapels and a long-stemmed rose.

(Soundbite of song, "Wait")

Mr. TRAMP: (Singing) ...I fall down.

HAMILTON: He is lip-synching to a song called "Wait."

(Soundbite of song, "Wait")

Mr. TRAMP: (Singing) Wait, just a...

(Soundbite of record scratching)

HAMILTON: He never showed it to her. Instead, he sent her an old-fashioned love letter and soon, he got a letter back.

Mr. PARKER: Dear Shaun, you are the best friend I have ever had. And she underlined friend in an infinite line that was explicit that I would never cross over.

HAMILTON: Shaun was crushed.

Setbacks aren't unique to humans, but Damasio says our response to them probably is. We see them as changing the plot line of the life story we thought we were writing, and we cope by coming up with a new narrative.

Mr. DAMASIO: In any moment of the present, we are buffeted between the lived past, about which we cannot do anything, and the future - the what next?

HAMILTON: The point is, humans never stop looking ahead to something better. King Arthur deals with his unfaithful queen by focusing on the Holy Grail; Shaun rebounds from Heidi by imagining an entirely different future for himself. He's going to make it in the movie business.

All through college, he works on that dream. By the time he graduates, he has an entry-level job with Disney all lined up. And then on the very day Shaun is to leave Menasha, the phone rings. His father takes the call; it's his father's doctor.

Mr. PARKER: The doctor said, you know, it's stage four prostate cancer. You know, you got to come in. So that's kind of where my life went on pause.

HAMILTON: Another setback - major - and this one was to last nearly two decades. But Shaun never gave up on the life story he was determined to write for himself. Which is why, many years later, he steps onto a stage in Hollywood.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. PARKER: Hi, everyone, I'm Shaun.

HAMILTON: Tomorrow, how Shaun got through those two decades, and how bringing meaning to our own stories helps us cope with adversity and even death.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And those reports are being told with the help of producer Rebecca Davis.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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