In today’s blog, I’d like to take a moment to share some thoughts about why stories matter so much to us as human beings. After all, my bookshelves are groaning with accumulated evidence and there seems to be no cure…
The divine spark
Scholars have been pondering the origin of language for many centuries, and have still not arrived at a comfortable consensus of exactly when, where, and how we began creating abstract fantasies (partly because of a lack of direct evidence, and partly because pondering is part of the scholarly job description). However, it’s probably a fairly safe bet that stories originated in oral form, and only later progressed to pictographic and phonetic representational language. This supposition – that stories predate even the written word – speaks volumes (no pun intended) about stories’ power over our species. Some scholars, such as Brian Boyd in his On the Origin of Stories, even go as far to say that stories have helped shape our evolution, and I can’t help but think he has a point.
Most cultures include creation myths that make direct or indirect reference to an ‘enlightenment’ when humans acquired the use of language, art, and above all intelligence and tool-making. From Prometheus taking pity on cold, vulnerable humanity, to Adam and Eve eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, to Maui tricking Mahuika out of the secret of fire – everyone seems to be in on the idea that intelligence/sentience (and the control that comes with it) is a divine gift that puts us on a par with the gods themselves. Our earliest ancestors clearly believed that stories – and the sentience required to produce them – were important and not a frivolous waste of time. This is pretty profound stuff when we consider just how much time and energy was devoted to simply surviving thousands of years ago!
Stories without borders
There is no doubt that stories have a primal quality to them. They call to us across every social and racial boundary. For me, the most astonishing boundaries that have been crossed are time and space. Carl Sagan once commented that books are truly magical devices, and I’m inclined to agree: The years spent working on the Delorean, H. G. Wells’ time machine, and even constructing the Doctor’s TARDIS all seem like a monumental waste of effort when we can all travel in time and space merely by picking up a small object stitched together from wood pulp and neatly-arranged pigments. Granted, these fictional journeys all take place inside the confines of our own minds, but how does this differ from the way our brains perceive all of our experiences? I’m reminded of a quote from The Matrix:
Even Roald Dahl’s titular heroine in Matilda, “travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.” I would love to see all of the mental passport stamps I’ve collected over the years, purely from the act of reading!
That such a fragile object as a book can connect thoughts, emotions, and ideas across thousands of miles, millennia of time, and even between the living and the dead, is downright incredible. However, we’re so conditioned to treating books as ordinary objects that we tend to forget what *%$£ing amazing things they truly are. I cannot help but wonder what stories are still locked up in the cryptic, stunningly beautiful cave-art, everywhere from France to Australia, left by our Paleolithic ancestors.
So why do stories matter so much to us? Why are they such a significant part of our human identity? Here are some possibilities:
1) Abstract imagination can help shape our current and future realities
Being able to imagine possible outcomes from a given situation would have been an exceedingly valuable tool for our relatively feeble-bodied species in the millennia before we invented fast food and antibiotics. For us to develop sharp cutting tools from a pile of flint boulders, we had to first imagine what would happen if we banged them together in a particular way. To flush out and trap dangerous prey species, we needed to first understand how that particular animal had acted in the past, and then imagine what they would do if acted upon by certain stimuli in the future (e.g. ‘if Gary strips off and runs towards the river wailing his fool-head off, the mammoths will all run over there to get out of his way’).
Our imaginations are what allow us to draw upon past experiences and synthesise possible futures. But here’s the neat thing: those past experiences don’t necessarily have to be our own. By telling each other stories, whether they are ‘true’, a mixture of our own experiences and those of others, or purely made-up from our own imaginations, we can also teach and pass on our own wisdom to others.
However, stories don’t just give us a way of imagining the outcome of immediate, survival-related scenarios; they can also help us explore and shape our distant futures. For example, Jules Verne was imagining men on the Moon long before the first space rocket was invented, and George Orwell gave us a glimpse of what overarching surveillance could do to society many years before we had even heard of CCTV and the Internet. Stories, and especially the genre of science fiction, gives us a playground where we can enact possibilities and lay the imaginative groundwork for future generations to explore. This does not mean that all scientific discoveries and societal changes must first be predicted through fiction – indeed, many advances have happened due to fortuitous accidents! – but a great many intellectual pathways would remain unexplored if somebody had not first asked the fateful question, ‘what if…?’ through the medium of fiction.
2) Lessons and survival
Stories hold the power to help us feel better about our circumstances. They can also inspire us to endure hardships, or change our lives for the better. How? Through empathising with characters who are also undergoing hardship, or who must necessitate change to improve their lives or those of others. It doesn’t matter if the hero of the story is going up against mythical beasts to save a kingdom, or an angry neighbour who refuses to return the lawn mower – what matters is that the characters’ attitudes can inspire and empower us to take charge of our own lives.
A glance through the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales is enough to show us the power of stories in teaching younger generations important survival skills. Stay out of the dark woods – or the trolls will eat you! Keep away from that deep pond – or Jenny Greenteeth will get you! Beware of strangers. Don’t stray from the path. Don’t accept gifts from fairies. And on and on it goes. People have been using stories to teach moral or life-saving lessons since we first sat around a campfire and muttered, ‘I bleedin’ told him, “don’t go into that lion’s den!”, but would he bleedin’ listen?!’
These tales, whether based on real or imagined threats, could potentially save younger and/or less experienced individuals from painful or high-risk experiences, and thus improve their chances of survival. After all, it’s important to make sure even young children know not to mess about near deep, stagnant water, not to wander into places where they could get lost or hurt by wild animals, and to keep strangers at arm’s length. Stories therefore play a small, but important, role in ensuring those children grow up and eventually pass on those same lessons to their children. From an evolutionary point of view, telling stories is a pretty good way of ensuring future generations can recognise and stay out of trouble.
These are just a few reasons why I think stories matter so much to us. If you think I’ve left anything out, or disagree with the points I’ve made, please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below!
The power of stories by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.