Stories are powerful. We don’t simply tell stories, we inhabit them. Since language began, we’ve been storytelling animals. Every time and culture has dominant stories that shape us, whether they are stories from religion, ideology or the market-place. Sometimes these stories have such a grip that it’s hard to see beyond them, yet alternative stories can change the world. In the words of Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller:
The wisest thing … the fairy tales taught is to meet the mythical world with cunning and high spirits.
Amongst the dominant stories of our age are several that are leading us down blind alleys or into destruction. In her retelling of the Ragnarok myth A S Byatt portrays the gods as stupid, selfish and short-sighted. They deserve to die. They can see the end of the world coming, yet they do nothing about it.
It’s a powerful warning of ecological disaster, but it could also be a story of soured relationships with others or with the self. It’s a call to change and, like all good stories, wakes us up.
So how do stories change the world?
1. Story makes sense of the world and those we share it with
The neuroscientist and novelist, Keith Oatley, has noted that in terms of how the brain responds when we’re reading, the simulation of reality is so vivid that it’s as though we are there.
The researcher, Uri Hasson, backs this up, noting that people who read a lot not only tend to have better understanding of others, but that those hearing the same story have the same brain reactions. This isn’t merely about a response to spoken language. Stories with their words changed prompt the same brain patterns in scans.
In stories, we dig deep into archetypes and in so doing we bridge the personal and the universal. We recognise ourselves as connected with the world we inhabit, an intrinsic part rather than something ‘other’.
In other words, story increases empathy and builds shared experience.
2. Story helps us interpret the past and shape the future
In addition to helping us interpret the world and building community, stories are tools for self-reflection. In The Enchanted Life, psychologist and storyteller, Sharon Blackie, notes that stories advise us of:
- where to find a door to another world
- how to leave a trail in order to find our way out of a dark forest
- that gold is not the best goal
- that maiming yourself to fit into someone else’s glass shoe isn’t worth it
- never to take your skin off and leave it on a beach where others might find it
Within the metaphors we find deep truths and lessons that bear revisiting at various stages of life.
One writing exercise she proposes is to journal about a favourite traditional story from your childhood. What is it that resonates with you about this story?
The one that sprang to mind for me was of the abduction of Persephone by Hades. Although her departure signals winter, new life always returns.
Blackie also asks what story we disliked. For me, Red Riding Hood. All that scaremongering and staying on the path!
More deeply, Blackie has worked with people in trauma using ancient stories and helped people find metaphors that have led to healing.
Similarly, Clarissa Pinkola Estés believes the old stories from many cultural traditions can reconnect us with our souls and with nature. As she set out in her iconic book, Women Who Run with the Wolves:
I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you, and that you will work with these stories… water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.
3. Story tells the truth
It is in such statements as ‘Once upon a time there was a dragon…’ such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at the truth.
Ursula K Le Guin, ‘Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’
It’s there throughout history: from Homer to Chaucer; from Shakespeare to Margaret Atwood we see the truth. We learn about the depths and heights of human nature; the impact of war, ideology, technology… all the world is there in story. And presented in a way that gets under the skin.
4. Stories untangle the mess and give us hope
But stories don’t simply lay the universe before us so that we feel it, viscerally. Story also offers a way through when we’ve made a mess or life seems unbearable.
Writing in The Guardian, Brian Doerries has discussed what happens when people use ancient stories as mirrors for what they’ve experienced. He talks about how Greek tragedies were:
the collective witness of human suffering.
And goes on:
In 2008, after a performance of Sophocles’ Ajax — a play about the suicide of a great, respected warrior — for an audience of Marines in San Diego, a military spouse leaned into a microphone and said, “My husband went away four times to war, and each time he returned, like Ajax, dragging invisible bodies into our house. The war came home with him. And to quote from the play, ‘Our home is a slaughterhouse.’”
He cites examples of people seeing plays that vindicated them in speaking out against drug abuse in their homes. Others are able to talk about the experience of sitting with the dying not as something fearful, but as witnessing miracles.
The more I have listened to these audiences respond to Greek tragedies, the more convinced I am of their relevance to our lives. And what I have seen in the faces of audience members — night after night — is a palpable sense of relief to discover that they are not alone: not alone in their communities, not alone across the world, and not alone across time.
5. Stories challenge one another
Story can change and save lives. Story is magical, transformative. But story, like so much, is both a culture we inhabit and a tool. And as with any culture, it can degenerate.
Hitler was a first-rate story teller. The stories he wove were evil and the results so horrifying that the world is still resonating to the harm caused.
Transformation isn’t always for the good and neither is the slow slide away from stories that have stood the test of time. I’m not Ludite or Golden Age thinker, but there are an increasing number of voices raised in concern at the dominant stories of our age.
Perhaps the single most powerful story that shapes our lives is that of consumption. It’s so pervasive that we hardly even notice it. It’s encultured and shapes our environment.
In the documentary, Facts from the Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard claims that only 1% of the stuff we buy is still in use six months later. It seems that if we are to ever get to grips with this, we don’t only need to declutter our physical environments and throw out bags of unwanted clothes, but also need to clear out unwanted stories. We need to free ourselves from the story that we need more and more and more to thrive.
Another story that currently dominates is the superhero. Again, I think self-esteem and believing in huge possibilities are crucial, but the all-conquering hero isn’t the only way to shape our narratives. Despite Campbell defining all story as the ‘hero’s journey’ there are other tales. Tales that give us a different way to relate to the world and to others.
The author Geoff Mead believes we need to move on: post-heroic journey. He suggests we look at story arcs that begin with a fall from grace or loss of way and go on to a quest that demands commitment and love. Moreover, quests that are undertaken without the aid of superpowers or magical intervention.
And whilst Thomas Berry says that we need new stories to affirm that we are part of and not separate from the world, Sharon Blackie notes that there is a wealth of traditional and ancient story to mine. In the story of the quest for the Grail, for example, the Grail Knight heals the Fisher King by asking the right, empathic question: What ails thee?
If stories are powerful, and they are; if stories shape societies, and they do, then we need to choose our stories with care. We need stories of hope, kindness and community, old and new, that challenge false and toxic stories.
6. Stories are vital to well-being
In the book, Living Myth, D Stephenson Bond explores how to live creatively when the dominant myths are losing power or credibility. Hopeful of both cultural renewal and individual meaning through imagination and story, Bond notes that when the dominant myths are intolerable we feel rootless and alienated; that is, we feel ‘unstoried’.
Rollo May comes to a similar conclusion. From Greek myth to Dante’s Inferno, from folk tales to contemporary novels (he cites The Great Gatsby) May identifies how stories give meaning, structure and healing with which to negotiate the world. In The Cry for Myth he writes:
The person without myth… is a person without a home… The loneliness of mythlessness is the deepest and least assuaged of all. Unrelated to the past, unconnected with the future, we hang as if in mid-air.
Story and meaning are of a piece; they are not just good for us, they form the environment in which we live and move and without them we are adrift. If the story we live in is bankrupt or destructive, it’s time not only to tell a new story, but to become a different story.
7. Stories expand our thinking and feeling
As I’ve already mentioned, in alluding to the horrific stories that someone like Hitler could tell, it’s not enough for a story to be compelling. Moreover, baldly didactic stories that make too blunt a point rarely endure. Story tellers tell the tales. It’s up to the listeners to find those that resonate, to make and live the meanings.
The best stories don’t persuade, rather they expand our ability to think and feel. And this in turn is transformative. Stories are not instruction manuals or described as dictates or propaganda. They change our hearts and thinking so much more subtly and deeply.
Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent… This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.
8. Stories give us wisdom rather than information
Walter Benjamin saw the decline of storytelling as inextricably linked with the rise in information
The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.
We live in an age that wants immediacy. Phone apps and social media give us quick dopamine shots. Ready-made information fills the void left by contemplative wisdom. Yet we remain hungry. To quote T S Eliot:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Stories take us back to the wisdom.
9. Stories assert our embodiment
We are part of the universe. Another false story that we’ve grown accustomed to is that of dualism. We make distinctions between mind and body as though disembodied mind could make sense. We oppose ourselves to the natural world as ‘other’. In contrast, the philosopher Husserl offered another story, that of the lived body as the crucible of experience. Subsequently, Merleau-Ponty built on his thinking:
The world is not what I think but what I live.
In other words, we access the world through the senses. Distinctions between body and mind or body and world are arbitrary:
This touching that I imagine I am doing in fact is a mutual process which is being done to me at the same time.
When we start to experience the world through our senses, not only cerebrally, the stories we tell, the stories we become, change.
In fact, one can go on and ask oneself whether the relationship of the storyteller to his material, human life, is not in itself a craftsman’s relationship, whether it is not his very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way.
10. Stories are fundamental to change
Stories are not only what we tell, they are the medium in which we exist. They are culture and ideology, myth and magic, toxic or transformative, decline or hope. Stories define communities, expand our thinking and feeling and give us direction and belonging.
If you doubt that stories change the world, look at any holocaust, consider the impact of the Bible or the Quran.
Whether for our individual journeys, our communities or the world, we can be a different story and make the magic happen.
Becoming a Different Story
I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.