Humans have a long history of defining themselves as different from other animals, as tool-users, as language-users, as God’s chosen. I can’t speak to the last one, but it’s clear that the boundaries we’ve tried to put between ourselves and other creatures on this earth have been eroded, as we find various species from apes to birds using tools, and others, including whales and prairie dogs, using language. Sometimes I wonder if what sets us apart is our use of metaphor and story-telling to try to communicate about our experience of life. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that elephants, for example, have complex metaphorical thinking. But until such time as we can learn elephant-speak, we’re left with the evidence that only humans dwell so much in Story.
The world’s great religious leaders used metaphors and parables to convey their ideas. For some reason, one that comes to mind is of the two monks traveling by foot who encounter a woman at a river crossing. The woman is afraid to enter the water, but needs to get across, and so the elder monk offers to carry her across on his back. The younger monk is shocked, for they are forbidden from touching women for any reason, yet the elder monk calmly carries her, sets her safely on the far bank, and continues on. The younger monk walks in silence until he can no longer bear it, then takes the elder to task for breaking this rule of their order. But the elder monk replies that he set the woman down back at the river, and the thought of her hasn’t touched him since, while the younger monk still carries her in his mind.
This is a more effective way to convey to the listener that the spirit of the law is what matters here—the elder monk is contained within himself enough, certain of his heart, to carry the woman on his back without eliciting any temptation.
As humans, when we hear a story, we imagine it for ourselves, whether it’s a dream or a report of a traffic accident, or a long novel. In doing so, we make it our own, holding it against our own experiences and ideas, seeing where it fits and where it misses, getting our own “ahas” in the process. Some stories fit only their own times, while others touch deep archetypal energies and so become classics and endure as subsequent generations find their own truths within. In taking in a story and imagining it for him or herself, the listener practices a form of compassion by imagining what it would be like to be the character in the story. Stories lead us both to higher truths and to deeper understandings.
And if you think story doesn’t touch your life, you haven’t been enduring the recent political campaign. Politics provides endless painful examples of how stories are used to frame positions, and arguments. The spin that’s applied makes the stories vary in believability, but the stories are paramount in any campaign. This is because it’s easier to imagine myself, for example, as an out-of-work auto-worker than it is to understand complicated economic formulas.
We use stories to relate the human experience to other humans. Stories can be “true,” as in anecdotes that actually happened (though even the act of telling the story molds the “truth” a little by what is included and how) or can be True in a greater sense, by offering an example of an archetypal experience that touches the reader/listener at the core. Of course, some stories can be false, complete fabrications that are only intended to manipulate the hearer into a certain reaction or behavior, crafted with cynicism. A lot of advertising fits in this last category.
Some stories have the power to change the world. When the story broke that Malala Yousufzai had been shot, people around the world felt the story’s impact not because they’d been on the bus with her, but because they could imagine the scene. Perhaps they have or had a fourteen-year-old daughter, or perhaps they simply understood how awful it was for her to be targeted for standing up for something so basic and important. The story captured our imaginations and may lead to changes in Pakistan, as the public reaction overwhelmingly condemns the violence.
So listen to stories, tell stories, write stories, draw stories. Because I’m convinced of the absolute importance of Story in the human experience, I encourage you to be aware of the stories you tell and the impact they have on your listeners. A friend of mine recently expressed regret that she hadn’t recorded a loved one’s stories before he died. So write down the stories of your life, or tell them into a recorder. You don’t have to do NaNoWriMo to save your stories, but if you decide to, I’ll celebrate that too!