How Our Stories Shape Our WorldDavid Burgundy | 28 May 2018
What can be more important than acquiring knowledge of how things work and of how people work? Navigating life takes understanding of emotions and behaviours, as well as of practical and mechanical matters. Taking it further, many would argue that most successful individuals also have insight into philosophy, morals and how their own psyches work.
An important question, then, is how we gain this knowledge. How do we learn what we need to learn? And really, the answer, across all platforms and formats, must be words. Words are how we make sense of the world, and how we try to explain it to other people. From oral traditions to printed novels, to the online and mobile technology explosion, the stories we tell each other are what form the world we see, live in and find our place in.
Conveying a Message
A lot of us will remember stories that emphasized not talking to strangers, and that caution is not really so different to what Hansel and Gretel learn in the classic fairy tale – which, incidentally, was part of an older canon of oral folklore first.
Practical matters like staying safe from bad elements can be learnt from books, as can everything from cooking to DIY, and if you’re reading a novel that happens to explain something like how an online casino works, it’s remarkably simple to retain that information.
This transference of worldly knowledge is an important function of stories, and has been for thousands of years. In addition to basic practical issues, such tales can also give people advice on how to live good lives; think of Aesop’s Fables, or the Parables of Jesus.
Not everyone was literate in these times, but anybody could grasp the important message of a simple yarn. As well as giving guidance, these narratives helped the educated elite to control the general populace and to explain things that happened. A natural flood became, for example, God’s method of wiping the world clean and starting again – first in older customs, and then in the Bible.
The idea of personal struggles in stories was not always as common as it is today; in the past they were essentially an alchemical alloy of historical records, powerful governance of the ignorant masses and pearls of wisdom to become a better person.
For some individuals, however, even early epics held special importance. Alexander the Great famously learned to read using the Iliad, and slept with his copy next to him. He even journeyed to Troy to re-enact the storied battles, and the book is thought to have inspired and informed a lot of the decisions that he made including being generally “courageous”, making Greek the common language and thus influencing later culture in many ways.
Closer to home and the modern age, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens has been instrumental in what we now think of as Yuletide traditions. Before its publication, Easter was much more important and Christmas was quite a minor holiday. Afterwards, visions of goodwill, festive spirit, presents, charity and even turkey instead of goose danced like sugarplums in our heads.
Where Experience and Interpretation Meet
As time has moved on, so have all forms of art. Once used only to convey large messages to many people, paintings, literature, sculpture and all forms of creativity can now be much more personal too. Their creators still use them to send out big ideas, but in today’s world they often help to work out or exorcize personal struggles and demons too.
Drawing on our collective pool of humanity, from experiences that we can all relate to, has always been what made storytelling an effective tool. As we’ve developed and refined it, we’ve been able to use it not only to express thoughts and ideas to others, but to make what we think clear to ourselves. In so doing, our stories become more meaningful to their originators and anyone who encounters them, inspiring all to keep creating their own.