Imagine a child growing up in an isolated and impoverished environment. Perhaps the people around her commit heinous acts in order to survive—or perhaps they choose to escape a hopeless existence and commit suicide. Options are limited; the future seems bleak. Perhaps the child is abused or neglected—but so is everyone else she knows, so she assumes that this is how life is. She’s never known another way, never been shown another possibility.
But what if one person escapes from this dreary place and discovers that life can be different, that people elsewhere are thriving? Tales of his discovery reach the child, and her life will never be the same. She learns about people who are happy, healthy, prosperous, loving and joyful. She may follow in the pioneer’s footsteps or encourage her children to find a better life. She may work for change in her native environment. Perhaps she will be punished, but her story will affect others and, someday, change will follow. A door has been opened. People now dream of a another way. They’ve been given a glimpse of what is possible, and that is enough to foment unrest, inspire actions, spark imaginations.
Many people (myself included) believe that the kind of imagery we fill our minds with influences our moods, our beliefs about the world and the people in it, the values we adopt and the goals we strive to attain. Insular groups attempt to limit outside influences for this very reason: members may grow dissatisfied with the status quo if they accept new ideas. They may demand change and begin to question the tenets of their religion or the actions of their leaders. New discoveries may conflict with some of the group’s teachings.
People that choose to stay in these groups don’t seek truth; they accept the truth of the story that has been told to them—defend it even. They follow their traditions and struggle to maintain their cultural identity, even when doing so prevents them from learning important information that could save their lives or keeps them from adopting new methods that would help ensure their survival. Change is perceived as threatening and dangerous—and it can be, but it is also essential to growth and evolution.
The Importance of Story
Television shows and motion pictures, as well as plays and books and blogs and other forms of communication that many of us take for granted, present images of different situations and show how people and characters handle the challenges that arise in their lives. Viewers (and readers) are shown a slice of life, perhaps similar in some ways to their own lives, perhaps completely foreign. They may identify with the similar characters and situations; they may be exposed to new and unusual ideas and practices. They may learn about consequences, develop insight into relationship patterns, and get a sense of what life is like for members of a tough urban gang, an affluent country club, or a utopian community. They may decide to travel to a distant land, take up hang gliding, or become a teacher or doctor or lawyer because a story arouses their interest.
Stories warn us about what may happen if we fail to learn from failures and mistakes. Stories remind us to make good use of the time we have. Stories evoke compassion for those who are suffering or less fortunate than ourselves. Stories motivate us to seek creative solutions to our problems and move us to help others. Stories educate us about dangers and inspire us to take risks. They show us what’s possible.
The worldview of someone who constantly focuses on dark, negative, and destructive imagery (violence, horror, murders and mutilations, apocalyptic destruction, the demise of the planet and the corruption of social institutions and political leaders) will probably differ (either at the outset, in determining the kind of subject matter that attracts him, or as a result of the distorted input) from someone who chooses life-affirming stories in which the characters contribute to society, find love and belonging, follow their dreams, and overcome great odds to achieve their goals.
Those of us who write about life—whether we write fictional stories, biographies, memoirs, or magazine articles—may question whether our writing is original enough to interest anyone other than our family and friends. Our stories may seem similar to the stories of people we know or have heard about. Has it all been said before? We need to remember the thousands of people who don’t know the people we know, who haven’t shared the kind of upbringing or challenges or adventures or blessings we have experienced. If our ideas seem radical, we need to remember that new ideas are sometimes initially dismissed but later adopted and incorporated into mainstream thought as seamlessly as if they had never been controversial and contentious.
Whether we write about personal victories or imagine fictional worlds, we have an opportunity to add to the collective consciousness stories that give meaning to the events of the past, illuminate the challenges of the present, and inspire behavior that shapes the future.
Stories matter. To the child surrounded by concrete who sees a television show about families that go swimming and ice skating and camping and vows that someday he will find a way out of the ghetto. To the adolescent who reads about life on a college campus and works hard to qualify for a scholarship so she, too, can further her education and play varsity sports or run for student council—or have whatever experience it is that she thinks would be worth having. To the struggling single mother who finds the strength to make it through another day when she reads an essay by a woman whose grown son expressed his gratitude for her sacrifices and hard work on his behalf. To the burned-out professional who sees a film about mountain climbing or humanitarian aid workers or spiritual awakening and decides there’s more to life than accumulating material possessions and mounting debt.
The most satisfying (and enduring) stories are the ones that speak to universal experiences common to people living in different eras, cultures, and circumstances. The scenery may change, but the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual states that are experienced by the people and characters in the story—the desire, yearning, suffering, pain, triumph, gratitude, and despair—are similar to our own; the joys and sorrows, highs and lows, successes and failures and gains and losses that occur in characters’ lives are part of the human experience. We laugh and cry along with the characters because we understand what they are going through, even if we have never set foot in a royal palace or survived an enemy attack.
Stories about gods and animals and aliens originate in the mind of a human. Someone took the time to imagine how a dog might think and feel or what an alien plans to do to us Earthlings (save us or enslave us) and to share it, but stories that anthropomorphize nonhuman creatures interest people because the characters behave like people. (Those Greek gods display very human traits and characteristics!) As social beings, we are interested in each others’ lives . . . and stories.
Our stories need not limit or define us. We can rewrite the script of our lives rather than repeating the same complaints and making the same choices (and experiencing the same outcomes) again and again. Awareness is the first step.
Maybe you’ve never given much thought to how your beliefs affect your choices or to the influence you have on others when you tweet and post and spread rumors.
What stories are you promoting?
–Jilaine Tarisa, author of A Moment of Time