Stories have power.
They’ve been accumulating power at least since our first ancestors found sustainable value in interacting with one another. Stories have the power to affect dynamic cultural change, and the power to destroy entire segments of that culture, depending on the way the narrative is told. It’s with that reality in mind that I urge you, my faithful storytellers, to practice great responsibility in how you convey your tale.
Countless reasons exist as to why stories are powerful, but the most primal reason is that understanding story patterns is essential to survival.
Think of it for a minute. Our primitive ancestors—regardless of the specific origin story you believe—found themselves very much alone in a world of really confusing, diverse surroundings. Though there were only a few of us at first, the early humans found fellow humans that looked and acted like they did, and they soon found value in working together. The more they effectively communicated their intentions, the more they got what they wanted. Hence, storytelling was born.
Much like modern babies, our first ancestors soon figured out that certain actions often resulted in certain consequences (sometimes good results, sometimes bad). This cause-and-effect relationship paved the way for the fittest survivors to discern patterns, giving them an edge over their slower-to-learn peers. In many cases, these patterns saved their lives.
For instance, a primitive human (let’s call him Gary) notices a herd of mastodon frequenting a watering hole at a certain time in the morning. After about his third visit during that time of day, Gary notices the smallest among them being picked off and devoured by carnivores. The carnivores seem to enjoy those fuzzy, plump delicacies, so Gary thinks he might enjoy one, too. But where could little ole Gary acquire such big sharp teeth?
The next day, Gary’s wielding a newly crafted rock dagger he’s just itching to try out. Maybe at first he straps the dagger onto his jaw to mimic the carnivore’s approach, but his experience gets him nothing but a close call with a spiky, flailing tusk. Before long, Gary attaches his “tooth” to a stick to keep him out of arm’s length from the tusks. Next thing he knows it, Gary’s got dinner and the carnivores are bumped down a notch, all because Gary picked up on the right causal relationships in his environment.
Discovering that one event affects another significantly affects Gary’s quality of life.
A few years pass for Caveman Gary, and he’s feeling pretty proud. He’s lived longer than most of his neighbors (pesky tar pits), and now he’s higher up the food chain and more insulated around the midsection than the Joneses next-cave over. His sage-like knowledge of how one thing causes another leads him to find causality in everything around him. Not only is Gary now interacting with his surroundings more effectively and purposefully, but he’s now slapping his left cheek before each hunt.
Why, you and Ook-Ugh Jones may ask?
Because of that one time Gary slapped his cheek to kill a mosquito-saurus and then went on to kill his biggest mastodon yet. Though there’s no logical relationship between Gary’s red-hand-printed cheek and the largeness of the mastodon, try telling him that. Try telling Ook-Ugh, who not only now slaps his cheek, but also does a sort of Neanderthal Macarena (thanks to that saber-toothed bee swarm) before starting his own morning hunt. Based on Gary’s experience, the fattest, furriest elephants only make their presence known after you’ve properly slapped yourself silly. And Ook-Ugh bristles at the thought of Tooth-stick Gary getting all the meat and the ladies.
Over time, Gary might add a Thriller-style foot shuffle and some gesticulations of his favorite campfire song to his routine. Because that’s the truth he’s discovered as functional and–within his realm of understanding–logical.
Flash to the present, my fellow advanced humans, and we’re not too far off from Gary and Ook-Ugh. We live the same kind of pattern-seeking lives. We’re existing within the same kind of victorious/face-palming realities. And the stories Gary and Ook-Ugh told each other around the campfire after the exhaustion of dancing and self-flagellation are very similar to the stories we tell today.
Like our ancestors over time, we recognize patterns and archetypes that have held meaning and resonance since the earliest stories were told. We often add our own buzzwords and sub-cultural biases, though, which makes us a pretty predictable lot. We regurgitate ideologies without really taking the time to digest or personalize the content.
The truth is, we humans are not so evolved as we think. There’s much to a story that we don’t instinctively understand–subtext that knee-jerk reactions always miss. As a default, we taint reality with our own biases, and we haplessly piggyback on the biases of others. We often bypass, as consumers, the critical thinking it takes to really connect with what’s being said in the world around us. As storytellers, we try too hard to fit reality into our narrow understanding of said reality. (Perhaps I’m doing that right now. How’s that for meta?)
Your stories can and will affect others. With an instantaneously connected global population, your filter-free stories now have the potential of affecting others on a global scale. Our web-powered opinions are now weapons of mass destruction. Let that sink in.
With that in mind, how do we as storytellers (and if you’re a human with a primary means of communicating, that’s you)… How do we avoid leading our impressionable neighbors into agonizing deaths by local tar pit or, worse, into ridiculous-looking Macarena dances?
It really boils down to the clichés we’ve all memorized: Putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Doing to the other guy what you’d want him to do to you. Taking a breather before doling out a from-the-hip “expert opinion” on every topic you see on Facebook.
Nothing sets back the human race more than intentionally purveying falsehoods just because they reinforce your worldview. (That’s a tough pill to swallow, because I really like to be right). But—considering the billions of lives you can realistically now affect—the overarching stakes of using dishonest pseudo-facts to win arguments are far higher than whether or not I get to bask in my rightness.
As I write this, I’m thinking of the many precious lives that were lost in Orlando. Already-hurting communities were left even more vulnerable as a result. Angers were understandably flared up and fears were embodied. And, sadly, we’ve become accustomed to that cycle of tragedy–>anger–>politicizing. But the cycle doesn’t have to be the same.
In the face of tragedy, the commonplace fact-defying harmful rituals of intentional dishonesty can be overcome… with responsible storytelling.
The stories you tell—when you live a life of service toward others among your species—speak volumes. The stories you write—through whatever medium you choose—have the potential to forever affect the actions, habits and beliefs of generations that will inevitably outlive us all.
So I urge you, friends: Step away from cramming reality into your default talking points.
Holster your bias-loaded weaponry.
Tell stories responsibly, and your great power can be used for good no matter the circumstance.
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