Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The power of Storytelling

Christmas always feels like a season of storytelling to me.  There are so many stories we tell, at this time of year.  Whether it is the story of the babe being born in a manger, the story of Santa Clause delivering presents to all the children of the world or the newer (and highly creepy) Elf on the Shelf.

Storytelling is an art as old as time.  As long as there have been people, I believe those people have been telling stories.  We tell stories to get our point across, to transmit (or obscure) information and to entertain. 

Many of our first experiences might have involved stories.  We read so many stories to our children, they grow up hearing stories.  And when they start to talk, they begin to create stories of their own.

We have a lot of mixed messages about stories.  We caution children 'not to tell stories' when we want them to be truthful.  We accept that many stories get embellished over time, or as they are passed between people, so the original story might not even be recognized when you hear it (just like in the game telephone).

And that is one of the things that makes stories so powerful.  Whether they are accurate or not, whether they are Truth, they are real.  This is why things like Elf on the Shelf work so much better than just telling your kids to behave.  We tell them a story, and we make that elf real to them.  When they see it, they remember the story...and they believe.  They believe what you have told them, and it changes how they act.  If that's not real, then I don't know what is.

It's not just children who are moved by stories.  When an actor steps into a roll, they are telling a story.  And many people can't seem to separate the role from the person who plays it.  There are countless incidents where people have treated actors better or worse, based on what characters they know them as.  We believe the story they tell when they take on a roll, and we react to them accordingly.

On a more personal front, we tell ourselves stories all day long.  When we think about our memories, we are shading in a story based on how we feel about what happened.  If we feel we are unlucky in love, when we think back on our younger self, we won't remember any good experience we had with love, we will only remember the bad things that happened to us.  We will spin this story about someone who can never find 'the one', no matter how hard they try, and that is the story we will remember and believe.  We will find ourselves not even noticing the people who try to approach us, because we have bought into that story that we are not attractive or likable.

But the truly wonderful thing about stories, is that you can always re-write them!  At any moment in time, you can write yourself a new story, and change how you perceive yourself or the world around you. 

I am a storyteller, in about every sense of the word that I can think of.  I tell stories that are pure fiction, created to entertain.  I tell teaching stories, tales that are used to illustrate a point that I want to make.  I tell puzzle stories, when I create stories as a game-master for roleplaying games, where I want to give some hints as to a mystery or situation that is going on, but not so many that it is obvious.  The fun is in figuring out what is really going on in the story, based on the clues that have been uncovered.

One of my favorite types of stories, are deity stories.  For me, these stories make Gods people.  They cease being just the embodiment of a quality and become complex beings with motivations, fears and desires.  It is their stories that bring them to life. 

And a fascinating thing about stories is that they don't have to all agree!  I have read many stories, about the same God or Goddess, that portray them as very different people.  This really gives them depth in my mind.  Much like if you were to talk to a dozen different people who knew me, and were to ask them what I was like, you would get a dozen different stories, some of which might paint me in a nice light, while others might not.

The thing to remember about stories is there are always (at least) two sides to a story.  If I am telling someone a story about you, that story will be influenced by many things.  It will probably have at least some passing resemblance to the event that happened, but it will be flavored by how I feel about you.  It will also be effected by who I am as a person:  my own perspective, experiences and outlook will alter how I view the world, and thus how I view you and what happened in my story.

This is something we need to be very mindful of, when we hear a story.  It is easy to get caught up in a story, and to empathize with the victim of the story, and to forget that we are only hearing one side of it.  This misrepresentation might be accidental or it might be purposeful.  When we hear a story, especially one that makes us feel strongly about something, it is very helpful to try to seek out an opposing story.  You will notice, I don't say look for the facts, because I feel it is very hard to get truly impartial is all just stories.

Even if you see a video or read a seemingly impartial 'just the facts' sort of write-up, remember you may not be seeing ALL the facts.  Either omitting or focusing on certain aspects creates a story of it's own.  I feel this is especially relevant when dealing with historical 'facts'.  So much of the records we have, were written by the ruling class of the day, so the stories we are hearing are those of the people who were running the show.  Even when we do get stories from other people, they are all written from the perspective of the mindset of the era, and some things that were considered fact at the time, we may no longer consider true at all.

This is also something we should always keep in mind as we tell our own stories.  We can never fully escape our perspective, and trying to present our stories as fact or truth is misleading.  However, we can own our stories, embrace that we can offer up our own unique point of view, something that no one else in the world, or throughout history could have shared, and our story becomes something really special.

Stories are powerful, and can be used for a great many things.  As long as we are mindful of the stories we tell, the stories we hear and the stories we pass along, we can use stories to make the world a better place, instead of tearing it apart.

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