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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

Lend me your ears and I’ll tell you a story…” (opening line of a song written by my father)

Stories are powerful. Stories can shape our entire outlook on life, our belief systems, our sense of identity. Storytelling ’round the fire has been an integral form of human communication from time immemorial. Think of all the stories you have cataloged in your brain – the stories your mother or father told you before bed, Aesop’s fables, fairy tales, war stories, nightmare birth stories, I-knew-a-guy-who stories, stories meant to give us some nugget of wisdom and guidance in how to live our lives.

Growing up I always loved fairy tales, but not just any fairy tales. They had to contain an element of darkness, of danger, of the macabre in order to appeal to me. In fact, I would argue that, by definition, an effective fairy tale must contain this element. Beauty has no purpose unless there is also a beast. According to Hans Christian Andersen, the Little Mermaid didn’t get her man in the end; she returned to the ocean, alone and defeated, in the form of sea foam, riding atop the crests of waves for eternity. I liked how the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty retained a sense of darkness and gloom (despite still straying wildly from the Grimm version). The wolf actually ate the duck, and likewise gobbled up Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. Disney, while ever in the business of happy endings, seems now to completely omit the macabre from its source stories. I was fascinated when I learned not too long ago that during times of famine in Medieval Europe parents sometimes sacrificed one or more of their children (often depositing them deep into the woods) so that the rest of the family might survive on their meager rations. Wide-eyed German children listening to the story of little Hansel and Gretel likely had reason to be afraid – very afraid.

Stories can be powerful tools to inspire fear; mothers often employ every child’s natural terror of monsters and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night to elicit good behavior from their children lest the bogeyman come and get them. Campfire stories exploit our natural human fear, as diurnal creatures, of the dark shadows and sounds unseen in the night, to delicious, spine-tingling effect.

Using this exact same concept, people have been led to believe some pretty amazing things. Think of all the ways, according to certain religious faiths, that you can get yourself a one way ticket to an afterlife of eternal misery and suffering. Or, conversely, the things you must do in order to experience eternal bliss. Think of the kind of power people can amass when we believe they hold and distribute the tickets.

Stories are the tools we use to pass on our beliefs, our ways of life, to the next generation, even when we aren’t aware that we’re telling them. We can tell our children stories about bad kinds of people and good kinds of people, and they will believe us. When people are dependent and trusting, we have almost limitless power.

Looking at the world stage, from prehistory to the present and beyond, from times of peace and war, ease and suffering, to everyday acts of personal violence and valor, I’m always asking myself these questions: Which stories are being told? Who is telling them? Who is competing with whom in the storytelling contests, and what are the agendas? How do we decide which stories we will believe? Which ones will we tell our children?

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