A friend claimed recently that if we were to take a group of people and put them in the forest with no cultural information whatsoever, within 50 years they’ll be worshiping something. Whether a god or a tree spirit, they would inevitably create a vessel for their beliefs. Her reasoning was that we love to tell stories. And she’s right. Storytelling lies at the heart of so much of our life. We listen avidly to other people’s stories, and we’re keen to tell our own. We unconsciously buy into the stories the advertising world pitches to us, and we daydream about stories we wish were true. We even go to war over differences in our stories.
This post is about seeing the potential of storytelling to bring calm and understanding to situations and our view of world, as well as the possibility that, with awareness, we can tell stories which will improve our lives.
One story I have heard over and over again is that we are all here for the same reason: to wake up and remember who we are. Significantly, in order to remember, we must first forget. And the problem with forgetting is that there is no guarantee we’ll remember. That explains why people can seem so easily distracted by the superficial when there is so much more to life. It’s a simple but powerful story which helps us to understand why people do the things they do. In that way it also helps to reduce the chance of us becoming frustrated with each other.
But why do we allow ourselves to get annoyed with each other? The easy answer is because of our expectations of them. We expect the world to be a certain way and we expect people to behave in a certain way. When they don’t, we get annoyed. As I have said before, we can never know the full story of someone else’s life (especially when it comes to their inner thoughts and feelings), so we cannot possibly know precisely what has led them to behave in a certain way. This gives us some licence to make up whatever story we wish in order to make the scenario in front of us okay.
Next time you get annoyed with someone, ask yourself, ‘What must have happened for this person to be behaving the way they are?’ Tell yourself a story which makes their behaviour make sense. Another way, as quoted in ‘Find A Way To Open The Valve’, is to take the attitude that everyone we encounter, directly or indirectly, has been kind to us. And if that doesn’t work, then do what the stoics do and think of the worst-case scenario. Any story from that perspective will instantly improve your situation.
Storytelling works on every level, not just with individuals. Take humanity, for example. Imagine it as a child. Our modern species is 200,000 years old, which makes it easy to assume that we should have learnt the lessons by now. But children hardly ever learn lessons first time around. Even adults struggle to learn lessons after failing repeatedly, so why should we expect (expect?!) humanity to do any better? Why should humanity display a greater awareness than so many of its subjects who remain fixated on the superficial delights of our world?
Our frustration grows when we consider how easy it is to be kind, citing as evidence the many acts of kindness across the globe on a daily basis. Our clear and undeniable abilities to create beauty and wonder in the arts, sciences, sport, music and literature only add to the sense of bewilderment. We are already capable of so much, but what if humanity’s progress after 200,000 years is still in its early stages? What if humanity, when viewed through the eyes of its own evolutionary lifespan, is a mere toddler; a two-year-old who has only just started to walk and talk, and whose development is yet to take off?
Or maybe an adolescent, on the verge of adulthood but still with so much to learn, so much to experience, and so much transformation to undergo. Thinking of our species in this way makes it easier to understand where we are. It takes the strain out of the scenario and allows us to breathe more deeply.
That is not to say, however, that we cannot progress at lightening speed, but first we must tell ourselves a different story: one of connection and harmony, in which humility has the edge over arrogance; a celebration of the beauty and splendour of individual expression and teamwork; with a focus on what we have in common rather than what divides us. A story in which, according to the words of Ram Dass, ‘We’re all just walking each other home’.