We make sense of the world through stories.
I grew up in a church with a very talented pastor. Although I hated sitting through most of the Sunday morning service with its words that were meaningless to me at the time and the repetition that dulled my senses, I always looked forward to the fifteen minutes that held the sermon.
Because it wasn’t a lecture. It wasn’t a speech.
It was a story.
Sometimes the story came straight from the scripture, the language massaged into a more modern vernacular and the characters brought to life.
But more often, it was a story straight from the pastor’s life. And as his words flowed, rising and falling as they filled the sanctuary, my mind would begin to process and anticipate and question. Although he was the only one speaking, the story created a dialog. We were not merely listeners; we were participants.
Every Sunday, I would travel with the pastor’s words. I would straddle the place between his story and my own. Pulling pieces from my own experience to make sense of the one he was relating. It always felt as though he was speaking just to me because every narrative spoke directly to something I could understand.
Because that’s what stories do.
One of the greatest gifts of stories is that they are inclusive. By their very nature, they invite everyone in by weaving a narrative that everyone can follow. A good storyteller can make you feel like a first-time father even when you’re a little girl or put you in the shoes of a desert nomad when you’ve never left your hometown.
Because even though the details of the stories differ, gifted storytellers understand that the threads creating the stories all come from the same cloth. All stories – from Dr. Suess to Dr. Martin Luther King – speak of struggle and triumph, love and loss, growth and stagnation, adventure and return, creation and destruction, hope and despair. And above all, the triumph of the human spirit and the importance of building relationships with ourselves, others and the world as a whole.
I heard a wonderful interview on NPR the other day with the noted storyteller Mama Koku. The show’s host asked her if it was difficult to craft a story for children that touched on difficult topics. “Not at all,” Mama Koku responded. She explained that most stories use allegory to tiptoe up on more challenging topics and that children are experts (even better than adults) at reading the subtext and pulling out the deeper meaning. She discussed the stories of Br’er Rabbit, which are based upon slavery and used to pass along the message that even those that appear powerless often have more power than they realize.
And stories often have more power than we realize.
We have evolved to remember through stories. Scientists have found that people can remember many more facts when they are woven into a story than when they are delivered in isolation. The best teachers know this, telling tales about their subject matter. Creating characters, action, crisis and resolution.
But our brains don’t only yearn for stories to help us remember.
Stories also help us understand.
Our brains hate isolated pieces of information as much as someone with OCD despises an unfinished puzzle. Our minds demand that the new information be placed within an existing narrative framework. We want to understand.
And the narrative we choose changes our understanding.
You can see this play out every day if you’re observant. Listen to a segment on MSNBC about some recent event. And then watch the complimentary segment on Fox News. The event is the same, but the narratives create very different meanings as causes are assigned, language is chosen and the story is fleshed out. You can see it in your friends and acquaintances and how they view similar life events through very different lenses. Maybe you can see it in yourself and your siblings, the narratives you crafted above yourselves as children following you into adulthood.
Stories provide clarity.
It’s difficult (if not impossible) to see ourselves or a situation we are involved in with complete clarity. We are simply too close to gain perspective. Sometimes it’s easier to see yourself in a reflection.
Much like Mama Koku uses her voice to tell children how powerful they are, use your story to tell yourself how powerful you are.
Your story matters.
First and foremost, it matters for you. Do you continue to weave tales from the threads of past traumas? It’s easy to do. Whenever I sense a distance in my husband, the first yarn my brain spins is one of abandonment. It fits the current information into an old template. An incorrect template. And simply by choosing a different narrative, I can change my entire viewpoint and settle my panicking brain.
Do your narratives place you in a victim role? Do they speak of bad events pummeling your helpless body like meteors falling to earth? Or, do the stories you build around life events view struggles as obstacles that build strength even as they build tension?
Your story matters.
You cannot choose what happens to you. But you can chose how you view it and, in turn, how you respond. Zoom out from the bad event. How do you want that to fit into the bigger picture? What purpose will it serve? What lessons will it impart? If it was a children’s tale being delivered by Mama Koku, what core truth would it reveal?
Your brain will choose a narrative regardless of what you do. But don’t you want to have influence over the choice? After all, it’s your life you’re talking about.
Your story matters.
Perhaps more than you even realize. Because even without intending to, we pass down our stories to our friends, our families. Our children.
And much like the small version of myself learning about the nature of the world and my place (and power) in it from the hard pew of my childhood church, your story is teaching those around you.
Yes, your story matters.
Make it a good one.