07 Dec The Power of Stories
Stories are incredibly powerful, they paint our picture, give us strength and keep people and places alive for as long as they are told. A good story will bring those we love and even those we don’t back from the dead. Through stories we learn empathy, in fact without empathy a storyteller would not be able to connect with an audience.
Stories are told to children, often before they can talk, to soothe and settle and as they grow to teach and assist them in understanding the world. It’s still common practice to instruct a child about the ills of theft or lying by way of nursery rhymes and fables. The Greek tragedians and philosophers understood that ‘edutainment’ often had a more lasting impression than simple instruction, which is why so many Greek myths and epic poems from the era are so heavily laden with symbolism and ironic fates befalling their characters. They were perhaps one of the first to understand that a story is a way to separate ‘signal’ from ‘noise’; the terrible thing that happened to you wasn’t random chaos, it was because of this series of actions you took or the attitudes you held.
Stories continue to play out throughout our lives, we are made of them and we interact with them, as in the stories of others. No story stands alone, it is held up by the stories around it, both flavoured by the surrounding culture and coloured by those stories which came before. In 1919 T.S. Eliot wrote that all the stories have already been written, and that our responsibility as storytellers is not to dredge new material from our subconscious in a vain pursuit of originality but instead to recombine old concepts and narrative forms into new combinations. It is the artist, Eliot asserts, who is able to take subjects a hundred thousand have tackled before and approach them with their own, individual perspective, seemingly creating something entirely new out of tropes and archetypes that have existed since we first gave language to the shadows which played across the walls of the caves we safely built our fires in.
My own family, much like yours no doubt, comes from a storytelling tradition. A rich mixture of Celtic romantics stand in the shadows of history behind me, from the great poets of the Scottish highlands like Burns and Scott to the Irish literary giants who shook the reading world in the 20th century like Joyce and Beckett. I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t have the blood of a storyteller in their veins, be it family tales of miners fighting union-busters on the picket lines to Naval tales from red-faced grandfathers. And almost everyone reading this today will be able to tell the unique story of witnessing 9/11, and how everything changed afterwards.
We learn a lot from our family stories, we may not realise it as they are being recounted but family stories passed down from generation to generation prepare us for our own challenges. When we have heard of those challenges and triumphs faced by our family and ancestors it teaches us survival and that we too can face our challenges. Stories of adversity can be told with pride, difficult events turned into something truly significant and the overcoming of obstacles told with fanfare and celebration. Stories are the glue that hold families and communities together.
Since man could first talk he’s been telling stories, painting them brightly with the spoken word and carving them into the walls of caves and tombs as a way of passing forward and preserving wisdom. The printed and portable written word is a relatively new development in human history, with some of the earliest cultures passing knowledge onto new generations with oral tradition, the story shifting as it moves across the face of time. Some of the very oldest carved texts are in the form of stories, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, widely believed to be the oldest surviving work of literature in the world, which was first told in ancient Mesopotamia over 4000 years ago. History, of course, is written by the victors. The Mayans may have had a great, grand civilisation in the Americas, but then one day they were gone, with no written tales to tell of their downfall. Was it drought? Were they conquered by the Aztecs? We may never know, which speaks to the vital importance of recording and disseminating stories as much as you can.
Stories help us to understand ourselves better, they help us in understanding the complexities of the world around us and in exploration of our own inner and outer worlds.
Stories have the power to help us recover from the past and have been used by shamanic tribes for hundreds of years in order to heal. Storytellers are, much like the shaman is a walker between worlds, a mediator between our known world and that of the unknown. Storytellers travel to other realms and worlds and help us experience those other realms of ourselves. Stories guide and assist, and in telling our own stories we are able to heal our own lives and set the scene for the future.
A story is never ‘just’ a story; it is a living, breathing snapshot of time and humanity. The gospels were a story, as was Samuel Pepys’ account of London burning to the ground, or the sacking of Carthage. Without the history of storytelling the historical record of humanity would be a sober accounting of numbers and migrations, lacking any and all of the inheirant passion which drives the species bravely forward unto blackest oblivion. Sentience and the ability to provide not just voice but perspective, reflection and attitude to our memory are the most unique blessings of humanity; let us not squander these gifts.
Please check out storiesofmylife_uk on Instagram and Facebook, my collaboration with my wonderful son, Aiden.