Once upon a time there was a teller of tales, an illustrious bard. This magnificent storyteller had enthralled many an audience with tales to inspire, to provoke deep contemplation, to titillate, to entice, to soften the hard hearted, and to invoke any number of feelings and reactions for multiple purposes. This storyteller is the great orator that lies at the heart of us all.
The Story-Telling Animal
Humans are a breed of storytellers. Stories have played a very important role in the development of human societies and individuals throughout all of human existence. Let us explore the importance of stories and the varied ways they have affected human history and individuals, both in a positive and negative manner.
Humans are storytelling animals. They have been since time immemorial. Gathered around a tribal fire telling stories of the day‘s hunt, or the adventures of our culture heroes, or the exploits of our deities and their creation of our world. These are some of the types of tales that occupied our evenings so long ago. There are also the stories that a culture or society uses to define itself at different times in its history, from stories of exclusivity that proclaim one “The Chosen People”, or “The Master Race”, to stories of inclusivity, such as “The Melting Pot”, or “Rainbow Nation.” Stories have a way of creating an identity for individuals and societies alike. They influence our self-esteem and confidence. Do we, as a culture see ourselves as victors or victims? Warriors or peacemakers? Intelligent or dim-witted?, etc. These self-defining stories affect species, races, nations, cultures, and individuals.
Ultimately the most important part of this list is the individual, because it is individuals that make up a culture, a nation, a race, a species. So let us focus on the individual to see the influence that stories, and personal narrative have on them. Also, let us see how we can change these personal narratives, because these can be also applied to the group narrative.
Stories Define Us
Stories are a formation tool, a defining tool, and even a limiting tool. Once one has told oneself the story that one is an artist and not an athlete, one may start to entertain the story that one does not have athletic ability and one’s body would then also be convinced of this and act accordingly. A once coordinated, relaxed body would now perform clumsily, stiltedly, and with much tension. The self-defining story has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This can be changed by introducing a new story of self-definition that isn’t an “either-or” proposition, but shouts “both”:
“I am an artist, but I am also an athlete. It doesn’t have to be one or the other exclusively. I am the best of both.”
This exact scenario occurred to me in my past, and a steady change in my personal narrative (what I tell myself internally) has allowed me to be both an artist, and an athlete of quality ability in the arts and sports that interest me.
Stories to Identify with as Ideals
In addition to the self-defining stories, there are another category of stories that influence us. These are the stories that we are fond of, or have an affinity for, and maybe an identification with. When I speak of identification, I am referring to the identification with particular characters in different stories (or the same story) who embody ideals that one resonates with. Also, identification in this context refers to viewing certain characters in stories (usually the protagonist and/or major supporting characters) as models of behaviour, worldview, or as an ideal (there’s that word again) to strive for.
Perhaps these characters we admire point to an inner truth? An inkling of one’s authentic self? Or just a desire to be and have the qualities of the fictional/mythical/historical model in question?
The X-Men and Paul Atreides
I, for example, was a big fan of the X-Men comic books written by Chris Claremont when I was a child, and pre-pubescent teen. I felt a love for these characters as though they were my personal friends, because I had an intimate glimpse into their lives and could relate to them in some ways. I could relate to how they felt apart from the rest of the world, and hated for their difference.
I especially could relate to the character of Wolverine and his quasi-lone wolf status, and how even amongst a crowd of other mutants, including his own X-Men family, he still felt alone at his core. Also, how he dealt with that seemingly innate loneliness, and was still able to connect (in varying degrees) with others. There were other aspects to his being and personality that I could relate to, and other characters from this comic book series that I felt an affinity for that would require too much analysis and exposition for this rudimentary exploration into the power of stories, so we’ll save that for another time.
Another character I idealized as a young man, was Paul Atreides, the protagonist of the first Dune book. I have to wonder if he represented to me an example of the powerless finding their power and of the triumph of the underdog.
Memory = Story
I also have to wonder if a major contributor to the power of a story has to do with the human mind’s inability to truly distinguish, in terms of flavour and feeling (though not in intellectual awareness) the difference between a true memory and an imagined story. A well-written, or well-told story makes you feel as though you are within it, experiencing what the protagonist is feeling, emotionally and bodily. One’s body even shows the signs of experiencing the same in terms of its tension, release of stress hormones, though to a lesser degree that one’s favourite character.
This has been my experience, at least.