We’re all storytellers. We use stories to define who we are and to explain the world. We use stories to answer questions, justify behaviour and predict the future. But, even when we believe our stories are true, there is no guarantee they are.
Some storytellers make up stories for their entertainment value. We all enjoy a moment of escape from the realities of life, so who can blame them for making up a few distracting yarns? Entertainment, after all, is a form of community service we all appreciate.
The world would be a different place if storytellers were confined to the field of distraction we call entertainment. Such an arrangement would make it easier to tell the difference between the illusions of their stories and reality. But, as I’m sure you already know, it doesn’t work like that.
There is no escaping stories or storytellers. There is only retelling, editing and rewriting, and the birthing of new stories – for without new stories, there is no way out of the old stories.
We tell stories about ourselves, and everyone we know tells stories about us. There is usually common ground across our stories, indisputable facts that hold them together in a coherent retelling of the events of our lives. Things like the date and location of our birth, the names of our parents and siblings, where we lived, what schools we attended, and our position in the family structure.
Yet, despite all the common details, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves do not always align with the tales others tell about us. Often, we can’t even agree with the versions of the story of our childhood retold by our siblings, let alone the ones told by our parents or teachers. Presumably they were there as witnesses to or participants in the events we remember, even if their memories generate stories that differ from our own.
So, whose story can we trust or believe as being a retelling of the facts as they really happened? Let’s face it, none of us has a perfect memory, so maybe none of the stories of our childhood are true, not even the ones we tell ourselves. Maybe today’s children will have a better go at sorting out their memories thanks to their digital records – but, I doubt it. We now know that pictures can lie.
And, what about those stories we use to define who we are? Is there any truth in them?
We all grow up within a cultural context. And, what’s a cultural context if it’s not a multilayered story of who we are as the people who live the way we live?
We are social beings. We live in groups. Every group has a defining story, some of which are thousands of years old. But, it’s not only indigenous cultures that are living examples of ancient stories. The defining stories of western civilization, what we in the West like to see as the modern world, are also rooted in the ancient history of the Greco-Roman world.
Cultural stories are based on assumptions and mythologies. They represent the agreements people have struck for living together in groups. Over time, some of the mythologies change. We no longer believe in the gods the Romans or the Ancient Greeks worshipped, for example, but a lot of their assumptions appear to have had a long shelf life.
We’re still defining ourselves in exclusive ways, dividing ourselves into separate groups and regarding some as others or the enemy. Like the Romans, we still believe that might is right and it’s okay to impose our beliefs and way of life on anyone who stands in the way of what we decide is progress.
Cultural stories also provide the context within which we construct our personal stories. In other words, the very concepts we use to describe who we are, whether to ourselves or anybody else, are defined by the beliefs and language of our family group, a subset of the larger cultural group into which we were born.
This is why people with exactly the same values, wanting exactly the same things out of life but living in different parts of the world, can see each other as different and even be convinced that they’re enemies.
And, it’s not just people living in different parts of the world that can be turned into the enemy. Anybody living in our society that doesn’t belong to our political, ethnic or racial group, worship our God, or support our team can be turned into an enemy by a story. Storytellers are that powerful.
It’s time for a new story
The internet is disrupting cultural stories. Despite the efforts of power elites in some places, people all over the planet are interacting in real time, and it’s difficult to see ordinary people in other countries as different or the enemy when they’re sharing common stories and giving voice to common aspirations.
It’s also difficult for governments to hide anything now that anybody with a smartphone and an internet connection can upload a video or tweet a post as soon as something happens anywhere in the world.
The internet has given a platform to alternative views, which are challenging the stories of entrenched voices. Yes, some of it is misinformation from those who want to maintain the divisions that give them power and advantage. Some of it, though, is myth-busting information that threatens the status quo.
We’re all storytellers. Each of us can participate in the telling of our cultural stories and change the narrative to birth a new story of a more inclusive world. We can birth a story about caring for our planet and every living being. We can help each other transition from the old story of division and destruction to a new story of unity and wellbeing.
Once a story is told, it takes on a life of its own. Storytellers are that powerful.