Once upon a time… These charming, magical words have opened fables and fairy tales for hundreds of years. “Once upon a time” stories evoke imagination, adventure, and wonder in listeners. But long before stories were written down, they were passed down orally from generation to generation. Storytelling is an ancient and universal art form which exists in all cultures. It is a distinctly human endeavor that is hardwired into our cultures and psyches, and some say storytelling is essential to human survival. What is the allure and power of stories? Why do we desire to tell and hear stories?
Telling stories unifies us. When we share the same legends, myths and histories, we reinforce our group identity.
Our stories reflect the wisdom and values of our culture. Telling and retelling stories draws us together, reinforces those values, and promotes group cooperation. These shared stories also help us to determine appropriate ways of conducting ourselves within society.
“Story is the umbilical cord that connects us to the past, present, and future,” according to Terry Tempest Williams, a prominent environmental author. “Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others.”
Stories lead us to develop empathy. A 2013 study reported in Science magazine reinforces the idea that stories can help people understand others. (As an English teacher, I love this study.) “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” is a study on literary fiction, that shows how it fiction “uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to relate to characters’ subjective experiences.”
Reading fiction, which portrays characters’ inner feelings and thoughts, fosters an understanding of others and a realization that others’ beliefs and desires may be different from one’s own. Being able to read emotions, developed through reading stories, is a crucial skill that enables complex social relationships to occur in human societies. No need to belabor how important this is in today’s climate.
Stories play a significant role in binding us together and reinforcing our shared identity. Nonetheless, storytelling, which likely evolved as a group survival strategy, can sometimes be used to isolate or invalidate others.
Even inadvertently, a culture may tell stories that misrepresent others. Stories are powerful. If people have no prior knowledge about a group except through popular culture portrayals, that is the depiction that will be retold as the definitive description of the group.
As an intentional abuse of power, stories can be perpetuated to subjugate people who are viewed as enemies.
Wielding storytelling as a weapon promotes stereotypes and robs people of their identity and dignity. As Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie explains, if the only story that the West tells about Africa is one of darkness, negativity and poverty, the people are then defined by that story. That story excludes the loving family bonds, commitment to community, and resilience that Nigerians embody. When we define people as only one thing, that is what they become.
There is no default story about any culture and no group can be reduced to a single narrative.
Clearly, stories matter and our stories need to be told, particularly the stories we tell about ourselves.
Each day we create our lives and add to our stories. Taking the diverse aspects of our lives and weaving them together into a narrative creates a tapestry that unifies our lives and makes sense of them.
Telling our stories can be redemptive and provide a vehicle to reclaim our lives in the face of adversity. It is a courageous act to tell one’s story since it is open to the judgment and scrutiny of others who may dismiss or disparage it. We expose ourselves to vulnerability, but at the same time we broaden the depth of our character and personal integrity.
It is empowering to engage in honest self-reflection and to enter the peace and wholeness of standing in our own truth.
As elders, parents, and grandparents in our community, we are in an optimal position to tell the stories of what we love, what we believe in, what we have learned.
Through our stories, we honor the defining experiences that shaped us and allow our loved ones to know us and to accept our triumphs and shortcomings. We offer our loved ones a wealth of family history. These stories provide a context within which children grow to know their families. Research shows that family histories, anecdotes about parents, shared memories, even recipes tighten family bonds and build security and self-confidence within children. Our personal stories are the lifeline to our descendants.
Tell your story.
Mary Petersen is a retired COC English Instructor, 30 year SCV resident, and two-time breast cancer survivor.