I want to talk a little bit about stories. Not just stories, but the meaning and power and magic of stories; their ability to teach us, move us, transport us, inspire us, create us.
I attended a play with my young cousin last weekend–it was a sequel to a series of books I have loved all my life, but which in recent years I have fallen out of touch with as I’ve moved on to new tales and new paths. I hadn’t thought about the characters–my old friends–in a while. But the wonderful thing was that they hadn’t gone anywhere. They were still there. Just the same as always. Their story was still there waiting for me to fall back into it.
I wept with joy and with anguish and laughed and felt my heart lift and soar as I watched. It was a beautifully staged piece of theatre, impressively cast and magically executed, and all that helped to make the experience a wonderful one. But what touched me the most was the story.
I was reminded just how much the story had always meant to me–what it still meant to me. I was reminded how much I loved these characters, their idiosyncrasies and quirks, their flaws and their deep, abiding love for one another. And I was reminded of all the things I had learned from them and their story. Of all the ways in which I am a better person because of them, and all the other stories and characters that have touched me deeply, made their way down all the narrow hallways and back alleys of my heart.
Stories are essential to human wellbeing; they are an essential ingredient of the human spirit. Some people might think that this is fanciful, childish even. I strongly disagree. A child who has shelter, food and water, but is starved of love and of stories is a neglected child. For that matter, a grown-up without stories is a neglected grown-up. We don’t grow out of our need for stories, just as we don’t grow out of our need for love.
We aren’t robots, needing only material energy inputs to run our system, general maintenance to keep our axles oiled, protection from the elements so we don’t rust, and the odd lick of paint every now and then to keep us looking spick and span. Our bodies may thrive on those things, but our souls can’t eat food, can’t drink water. Without stories, our souls have nowhere to shelter from the pain of simply being alive–stories are the houses where our souls live.
I cannot speak for anyone else, but I know what stories have done and still do for me. What they will keep teaching me until the day I can no longer see or hear the words, and I am returned to the earth and the trees and the sea and the sky. I am made of stories.
Stories have taught me almost everything I know. They have made me a kinder, more empathetic, more understanding person. They have given me ways of understanding the cruelty and the beauty of the world, and how it seems always to be somehow both at once. They have taught me the value of bravery, compassion, friendship.
Stories have showed me how to feel–to feel deeply and passionately and desperately–to love and to laugh, to cry and to mourn. Through stories, I have experienced emotions that in my own life I’ve had no occasion to feel. And because of that, I am better able to understand the way others might be feeling, how an experience might affect someone even though I’ve never experienced it myself. They have given me empathy, taught me always to seek to understand the perspectives of others.
When I have been at my most lonely, my most desolate and afraid, I have had stories to lean on; friends in other places, other worlds, whom I can turn to and depend on, always. When life has seemed bleak and difficult, the ability to enter another world has saved me, more times than I can count.
And when the world seems unbearable and callous and irreparably broken, stories have taught me what it is to fight against unbeatable odds and invincible enemies. How to keep fighting even when the entire world seems pitted against me, when it seems like there are so few on the side of light and good, on the side of clean air and clear water and a liveable world, so few who want to save the forests and the bears and the reefs and the fish and the birds and all the little, ordinary people, when it seems that it would be easier to lie down on the riverbed and let the current wash me away out to sea.
What I’m trying to get at is that I know it to be a fundamental, incontrovertible truth that stories have the power to change the world. They have certainly changed mine.