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The Power of Telling Stories: How Storytelling Creates Meaning

Why stories are important?  

We view our World in stories. It is how we give meaning to our life. The idea of our place in this world, where we have come from, where we will go. How we see the beauty and how we connect it to our whole experience. Our ideas about justice and morality and how they are weaved around us to give us the full experience of life, all these things together make us who we are. They are our Worldview, and stories have a very important role in shaping and transforming them. How stories affect us? Let us dig deeper and look at some important things in our lives and how stories shape them.

Table of Contents

Words and story creation
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What do you think when you say a certain word? Or what do you imagine? When we say words images form in our minds which if we concentrate have certain feelings. For example, when I say the word scissors, I see chrome scissors cutting some hairs. When I say the word God I see a double door with a round top in complete darkness. I am sure you too have such word-image associations.

Have you ever asked yourself how these associations form in memory?

I remember a conversation between my father and uncles when I was 4 years old. I don't remember what they discussed, but there was a gallery in our house next to the room we were sitting in. The gallery had a double door with a round top exit. It was nighttime, and the galley was dark. They were discussing something which used the word, God. Then the conversation ended and my mother rushed us through the gallery to the bedroom to sleep.

That night when I was passing through the gallery with my mother, I was thinking about the word God and the image of double doors in gloom was etched in my mind forever.

All words in our minds have such stories woven in their origins. These stories give words their meaning, their depth, and feeling. They are how we experience words and language.

A word evokes a dim image with its story and feeling but many words in a sentence, paragraph, or narrative weave a bigger picture and tell us something concrete.

The stories about people and personalities

The stories we know about people make them attractive or repulsive to us. A beautiful model on a billboard or in some picture rarely attracts our attention for more than a few moments. But a relatively less attractive actor in your favorite movie keeps you thinking for months or even years. You strangely find that actor more attractive. You might disagree with me, but you can experiment.

Next time when some popular movie comes with some strange faces, take out their pictures and see them before watching the movies and note down your emotions about it. Compare them to your feelings after watching the movie you will find a stark contrast. You suddenly start feeling pity, hate, trust, or love for some strange person after watching a movie.

Stories are responsible for changing our feelings strongly for a person in a few hours. Stories shape our perception. They consciously and unconsciously make our opinions about the people around us or even the strangers.

For example, when we see a strange person on the road we suddenly feel trust or mistrust, repulsiveness or warmth. Where do these feelings come from? There can be many answers to that, as your subconscious mind, your mood, etc. but the most obvious thing is the story you associate with that person. We don't know that person but we know a story of someone from our neighborhood, workplace or some movie, etc who is similar in appearance to the person you are now seeing. You unconsciously superimpose a person you relatively know about on the stranger you are seeing on a road. And then you draw conclusions. That is why sometimes we come to hate or like people immediately.

The way a certain person moves, the way he talks and even the way he eats builds in us an opinion about him. You might blame yourself for such behavior, but this is an inbuilt system in all of us. We superimpose the known on the unknown. And the known always originates from the stories.

Men and women mean nothing to us until they are related to us through stories

Stories and Opinions

Just like people, our opinions about the things we see, thoughts and ideas are shaped by stories. Our ideas about truth or untruth, beauty, and ugliness, goodness, and badness are not a simple matter of yes or no. Opinions are complex things having a great deal of meaning and feeling. They don't have much effect on another person in plain terms.

For example, if you say to a child that telling a lie is a bad thing. That does not convey much meaning to him. But if you tell him a story and through that story impart to him the ugliness of lies and the goodness of truth, he is more likely to get your meaning and more likely to listen.

In the same way, when ideas are spread widely in people, they are almost always spread through stories. Why something is bad? Why something is good? Why going someplace is wrong? People convey their opinions are moral feelings through stories to each other. Sometimes these stories are incidents from their experiences. Sometimes something they have heard. Sometimes it is, even more, a tale from folklore or mythology.

Metanarrative in mythology and religion
Photo by <a href="">Markus Spiske</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

Religion and ideology use stories to convey meaning. The stories of Genesis in the Bible, the stories of Prophets in the Quran, the mythological tales of Bhagavad Gita are not just stories. They are complete worldviews.

It is through these stories that religion becomes meaningful to people. Stories have an all-encompassing direct effect in shaping and transforming people's opinions.

You can see the effect of stories in our films. If a person from a very conservative background starts watching movies from Hollywood, etc. his views will imperceptibly change about the world around him. He will start seeing things differently. If he does not have a thorough understanding of his roots, he might be completely transformed. In that case, he will be like an empty vessel waiting to be filled and the narrative of Hollywood films would fill it perfectly.

Even if a person knows about his own ideology, stories of a different culture (especially a dominant one) displayed attractively can cause doubt in him. They can even call him to question certain things in his own culture.

No doubt that in the learned company or between scholars discussions take place in technical or more abstract terms, but such discussions often don't lead to transformative changes in the opinions of someone. Even when they do, stories have a large part in them. Perhaps subconsciously. Stories do affect us subconsciously sometimes especially our own story.

Stories in Great Literature

Great literature and art use stories to depict higher meaning. The journey of Dante through Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory or Rumi's Masnavi with lots of tales depicting deeper meaning can literally transform a person's worldview if he is from the right background i.e same Civilization and appreciates literature. Much of that transformative effect is due in large part to interwoven stories in these great works which connect the human soul to some higher meaning.

How poetry tells stories

Poetry affects us greatly. One of the reasons that it is so successful to evoke emotion is the use of metaphors. They are so important that they can be considered as building blocks of good poetry. And what are metaphors? They are stories condensed in a word or a phrase.

For example, a poet can compare a bout of depression with passing through a dark cave. Or the feeling of euphoria and victory against rising odds with David killing Goliath. Poets make our experiences greater or minuscule than they are in reality, and this is all possible because of condensed stories in the form of metaphors.

How common people use stories

Normal life events are not interesting enough. Even if something strange or disorderly happens, like some fight in a park or a confrontation between people, it is not interesting when told in simple words. For example, a fight between two office workers about a debt that one owes the other. For the people in the office, the event is much more than just a fight. They know these two people personally. They have different kinds of feelings ranging from hate to love for these two. So when they tell this story to their friends at some party etc. they embellish it greatly (sometimes even unconsciously) to give the effect it produced on them because the simple truth is not interesting enough. People make up stuff so that they could be heard, and others should pay them more attention.

Rumors sometimes spread just like this. A person in contact with a celebrity tells his friends something about a celebrity or a politician. It spreads like wildfire in the city. When it finally comes on TV, it is very different from the original news the guy told his friends. Simply put people embellish truth to make it more interesting. And what are truths embellished with lies? Stories.  

Contradiction in Stories

In pre-modern times, civilizations and cultures were secluded from each other. Globalization has changed this. More than half of humanity is now digitally connected. Ideas, worldviews, and the stories that support these worldviews are being exchanged all over the world. This is a good thing no doubt because it provides more openness, choice, and a potential to evolve beyond ourselves. But like everything, globalization has its problems.

People in a globalizing world have worldviews that are often contradictory. For example, some person with conservative religious ideas finds modern depictions of art and beauty as beautiful and is bored by classical depictions of art and beauty. Morally and dogmatically the modern depiction of art and beauty is vulgar and base from a conservative angle. So there is a clear contradiction here in personality like there are two completely different persons living in the same body. There is nothing wrong with that, but these kinds of contradictions in worldview create problems like anxiety, depression, and loss of meaning, etc. especially when some tragedy occurs.

Stories have a big role in creating these contradictions. The stories we read in books in the form of novels or the movies and TV. we watch or newspapers we read all imperceptibly feed us with some worldview or some story. Sometimes we are consciously affected by their content and sometimes unconsciously, but the results are the same. We start seeing the world in different colors and angles.

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