Our Storied Lives: Narrating, Navigating Adversity Shaun Parker moved from Menasha, Wis., to Los Angeles to pursue his dream to work in film. After nearly two decades of setbacks and stalling, Parker began crafting a new life story -- one that got a kick-start with an appearance at the storytelling series Mortified.
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Our Storied Lives: Narrating, Navigating Adversity

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Our Storied Lives: Narrating, Navigating Adversity

Our Storied Lives: Narrating, Navigating Adversity

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Let's pick up now, with our series The Human Edge on how evolution has made our species so successful.

We heard yesterday, how our brain is uniquely wired for storytelling and how that helps us to see and even shape our lives. This morning, NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton resumes the story we began yesterday, of a man from Menasha, Wisconsin named Shaun Parker.

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

JON HAMILTON: Shaun's waited nearly 20 years for this moment. He's standing on a stage in Hollywood, about to tell the audience how he got here.

Mr. PARKER: Growing up, I loved movies. I loved watching them.

HAMILTON: Shaun decided as a kid, he wanted his life to be a story about more than just working in a paper mill.

Mr. PARKER: There's one movie that came to define my view on life, and that movie was "Excalibur."

HAMILTON: Shaun is telling his story as part of a show called "Mortified."

Mr. PARKER: "Excalibur" made me think that, just like Arthur, that I had a destiny.

HAMILTON: Grown-ups recount painfully funny experiences from adolescence.

Neil Katcher is executive producer of "Mortified." He says telling stories can be a way of coping with adversity, even death. When we relive a painful event, it reminds us that eventually we feel better.

Mr. NEIL KATCHER (Executive Producer, "Mortified"): When we're children, we think a lot of things are going to kill us. We think that getting pounced in gym class would kill us. We think that getting rejected by that crush would, you know, just, you know, be the end.

HAMILTON: But, of course, it's not.

Today, Shaun is describing how he tried to make his own life a bit like the story of King Arthur. His destiny would be true love; his own Guinevere.

Mr. PARKER: And when I was 18, I was convinced that that destiny was Heidi.

HAMILTON: Shaun shows the cheesy video he made to woo her.

(Soundbite of music)

HAMILTON: And then he reads the Dear Shaun letter she sent him. The audience is laughing and cringing because they see a bit of themselves in Shaun.

Hearing a story from this guy helps us feel better about our own stories of humiliations. Shaun survives; so will we.

Antonio Damasio is a behavioral neurologist at the University of Southern California, and he says whether we're watching Shaun or Shakespeare, we use stories to gain a perspective on our own lives.

Professor ANTONIO DAMASIO (Behavioral Neurology, University of Southern California): At the end of a great big drama in which everybody dies, you know that you're not going to die.

HAMILTON: Damasio says stories serve another purpose too.

Mr. DAMASIO: But maybe you're going to take some lessons out of why on Earth poor Hamlet got into the trouble he got, and why he had to be turned into mincemeat.

HAMILTON: So, we do everything we can to make sure our own life stories turn out differently.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: I realized maybe this was my grail - making videos.

HAMILTON: The audience at Mortified loves that Shaun uses his romantic failure to change his life. He talks about his plan to leave Menasha. Everyone is rooting for him. Then Shaun's story takes another turn.

Mr. PARKER: Out of nowhere, my dad got sick. And we were told time was precious, so I stayed where I was needed.

HAMILTON: At this point, the 250 people watching Shaun are totally silent. He isn't talking about being mortified anymore; he's talking about mortality. Shaun has slammed into a major problem faced by our species: we know we're going to die and we have to make that bearable.

Damasio says stories are how we do that. Stories about an afterlife and the stories we create in this one: the businesses we build, the children we raise, the books we write, the good we do.

Mr. DAMASIO: All of these things are attempts by clever human beings to cope with fundamentally a rather bad deal, which is that you are alive, you enjoy your life, there are others that you love that can be lost. How do you deal with this?

HAMILTON: And Damasio says there's another way stories help us survive. When the present is grim, we look ahead to the part of our life we haven't lived yet and start writing that story.

Mr. DAMASIO: When I'm talking to someone who is discouraged or depressed, I tend to say, don't let yourself be in this moment. Try to think, instead, about the possible future and try to be literally pulled by that future. Imagine something that you would like to achieve.

HAMILTON: And that's what Shaun did. But it wasn't his father's death he had to deal with. His father's illness - cancer - went into remission. Shaun had to deal with staying in Menasha instead of going to Hollywood. Nearly 20 years passed.

And during that time, the great future in movies that Shaun imagined for himself evolved a bit. We're always rewriting our lives.

Mr. PARKER: Man, if I could be, you know, just a storyteller, not having to be the main guy, but just to be part of it, to say, hey, I was part of that. I was part of something that moved you.

HAMILTON: This draft of his future kept him going. He did some local improv; he learned about video editing. And one day, he started tinkering with that video love letter he'd made for Heidi.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HAMILTON: He watched himself as a young man lip-syncing to a heavy metal song "Wait."

(Soundbite of song, "Wait")

HAMILTON: Then, as he tells the audience at "Mortified," he was able to use his computer to finally make his lips match the words.

Mr. PARKER: And when I finally put it all together, I realized something. The "Wait" video wasn't necessarily a message to Heidi - it was a message for me to be part of something greater than myself.

HAMILTON: And that wasn't happening in Menasha. So, at the age of 37, Shaun got in his car and headed for the land of dreams and palm trees. Before long, he met the people at "Mortified." They helped Shaun realize that the story he'd been working on this whole life was his own.

Mr. PARKER: And here I stand before you, the newest and oldest production assistant of Fox Television's post-accounting division.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Free insurance. And now here are the final moments of the video that took nearly two decades to realize. I give you "Wait" as it was originally meant to be seen.

(Soundbite of applause)

HAMILTON: Neil Katcher, "Mortified's" executive producer, still remembers that moment.

Mr. KATCHER: The crowd just started cheering so loudly that you could feel the cheers sort of just shaking the whole room.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. PARKER: I remember distinctly feeling, if nothing else ever happens for me out here, I have that moment that I stood in front of 250 strangers and I moved them.

HAMILTON: Shaun says that moment helps him accept the present; a present in which his father has died, he works as a clerk while looking for acting jobs, and he lives in a shoebox apartment.

Mr. PARKER: Hey guys.

Unidentified Man: Good morning.

Mr. PARKER: This is the hovel.

HAMILTON: You are right on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Mr. PARKER: I know. It's weird, right? Because there's so much money around me, it's just kind of strange then to have this tiny little place that - this is what $575 a month buys you so.

HAMILTON: It's not much, but to Shaun, it's a pretty good place to start writing the next part of his story.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And our story was produced by Rebecca Davis.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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