We begin telling stories at a very young age — some might say tall tales. We continue editing, rewriting, and creating new chapters through adulthood until we reach our epilogue. The stories we commit to memory reflect our struggle to reconcile who we are (editing), who we were (rewriting), and who we wish to become (creating).
Sociologists and psychologists say narratives not only convey information but also confer and confirm identity. We make sense of our world through the stories we hear, as well as the stories we tell. They become internalized and, consequently, become a part of who we are.
Jerome Bruner, an educational psychologist and author of The Narrative Construction of Reality, believes that not until we tell ourselves a story can we make sense of our experience. Shared stories join us together as friends, family, communities, and countries.
We tell stories because emotional narratives are meaningful ways to convey the realities of human experience. When we consume stories, we innately interpret them in a way we can understand, in a way that has meaning in our lives, and in a way that is relative to our experience.
Relativity is a basic premise of effective pedagogy; the strategy and process of teaching. For someone to learn something new, they must be able to relate it to something they already understand. We must be able to relate new information to what we already know.
Not until we tell ourselves a story can we make sense of our experience.
Indirectly, we become the stories we consume. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said it this way, “You are what you are and where you are by what has gone into your mind. You can change what you are and where you are by changing what goes into your mind.”
An emotionally compelling narrative triggers the imagination. From there, on an unconscious level, we create a personal narrative that helps organize our lives and define who we are and who we want to be. It’s all very subtle, incremental and — over time — highly influential and formative.
Myths and other ancient stories
Can ancient myths speak to us in modern times? Mythological tales and — let’s be candid—anything written more than a decade ago tend to suffer from a relevance and credibility standpoint. This is unfortunate.
The term ‘myth’ is often used casually to refer to a ‘false’ story: an invented idea, an unproven or fictitious thing, or an inaccurate collective belief. Consequently, we shy away from exploring the hidden treasures mythology has to offer beyond the latest 3-D film.
Since the characters in ancient myths are often gods or supernatural heroes given to accomplishing magical or superhuman feats, it is easy enough to believe myths deserve the bad rap of falsehood and fantasy.
If you are willing to withhold judgment on the factuality or falsity of myths, some attractive benefits befall you. Like fictional books, you won’t find many facts in mythology. What you will find is truth. Not truth in the literal sense, but truth in the psychological sense.
Myth comes from the Greek mythos, meaning legend or story. There can be considerable value in adopting and adapting ancient stories and mythical structures to better understand our present-day selves and future potential. They work because myths are as timeless and relevant today as the day they were written.
The mythic ‘source code’ has been the seed of storytelling since the dawn of time.
Myths contain hidden messages. If interpreted literally, however, the value of mythology is limited and largely inaccessible. Roman philosopher, Sallustius wrote, “Myths are things that never happened but always are.”
Great mythical stories don’t need to come adorned with cobwebs and a layer of dust to be significant. Modern myths are everywhere.
In their simplest form myths are stories told around the campfire or dining room table that have been enhanced and embellished at each telling. The mythic ‘source code’ has been the seed of storytelling since the dawn of time.
Creating our own myths and stories is a tool that serves us well. We participate in myth making ourselves at family reunions, holiday celebrations, or other traditional gatherings. From when crazy Uncle Bob tells stories about his ’57 Chevy back in ‘the day,’ right down to the tale Grammie tells every Thanksgiving about how your great-great grandfather came over on the boat from the old country. Why does she tell it every year? Because she always has.
Mythology can help us make sense of our world and our place in it. Consider it an ancient language system handed down through the generations to aid us in understanding the mysteries of life.
We tell stories because the full truth is complicated and often mundane. Our brains have a difficult time weaving together the entire dimension of our lives, so we condense our thoughts to be better understood. We learn to lace facts with descriptive images and interesting analogies. Then we stitch them together with a compelling narrative. We remember stories because stories are how we remember.
We’re better able to mesh our thoughts with stories, as well as make our point in a shorter amount of time. And we can do it all in a more memorable way when we use a story as the vehicle. Compelling stories not only make us feel good, but our listeners are more appreciative and more likely to ‘buy in’ to our point of view.
We remember stories because stories are how we remember.
According to Mark Turner, author of The Literary Mind, narrative imagining is the fundamental instrument of thought. It may be challenging to remember the heroic achievements of the first president of the United States. However, we have no trouble recalling the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. Ben Franklin’s political and diplomatic contributions are too numerous to commit to memory, but it’s hard to forget his kite experiment.
Today, film and television are the closest mediums to pure storytelling. They combine the powerful elements of sight, sound, motion, and emotion. While written stories are as meaningful and powerful as ever, they require the reader to create internally — within the mind — what film and television offer in explicit, external form.
Former Hollywood development executive, Christopher Vogler contends that stories have survival value for the human species. “They were a big step in human evolution, allowing us to think metaphorically and to pass down the accumulated wisdom of the race in story form.”
We identify with the heroes in stories, myths, and movies. Good storytellers blend admirable qualities with character flaws that engender in the reader a strong desire to adapt and comfortably merge with the hero’s character.
We readily recognize and identify these qualities within ourselves. In the wonderful world of story, we enhance the qualities we wish we had more of and diminish the negative characteristics that hold us back in the real world.
A bedrock principle of the Sundance Institute rests on the power of stories. “From the beginning of time, stories have been the vehicles for passing down values, legacy, and identity,” says founder Robert Redford. “All of the programs at Sundance have been and will always be about the power of storytelling. It’s fundamental in society. Even today, the power to shape our culture lies in the hands of communicators who are going to tell its story.”