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The Importance of a Story

The following blog post was written by our Executive Director, Joe Flaherty.

We are, as the author Jonathan Gottschall, expostulates in his book of the same title, The Storytelling Animal, natural storytellers. Story, whether it be in oral or written form, is how we make sense of this world we find ourselves in, how we pass along knowledge and values to ourselves and future generations, how we learn about others, and how we try out other people’s lives and learn about other cultures. It is the way in which we can crawl inside the skin of others and see the world through their eyes. In story are expressed our individual and collective hopes, dreams, fears, aspirations… Stories help us understand and find our way in the world.

As countries, as religions, as families, and as individuals, we have our narratives, our myths, whether they are true or not. They tell us how our group is the best, the strongest, the most moral, the chosen ones. They tell us how we overcame suffering to get where we are today; they give us a sense of belonging and purpose.

The most literal, and at the same time, most metaphorical example I’ve ever heard about the power and importance of storytelling was related to me a number of years ago by the poet, Gary Snyder. He told me about how, during a trip to the Australian outback, he and a number of his fellow travelers had retained the services of an Aboriginal guide to lead them through the desert. The guide started reciting a story as soon as they started walking toward the Range Rover that would drive them to their eventual destination. After they had climbed in the vehicle, and the vehicle started to move forward, the guide began speaking much faster, but would slow down again if the vehicle ever slowed down. Snyder eventually figured out what was going on, he told me, and then had his speculations verified after the journey by Australians knowledgeable about this subject. It seemed that because there were so few visible markers to guide them through the deserts, the native inhabitants had developed and memorized stories, told in real time, that would guide them on their journies. When they got to a certain part of the story they might find some water, or some shade, within a near distance. Or, perhaps, at that part in the narrative theyhad to turn in a different direction. These travel directions were intended to be recited at the speed of walking, so that when the guide suddenly found himself in a moving vehicle, he had to greatly speed up his recitation if he was to have any hope of finding his, and their, way.

Story is crucial to us, we could not exist without it. As important to us as air, food, and water. And at certain moments in our lives, even more so….