Storytelling & Language
“How did we get here? How can I stay safe? Why was that person mean to me?”
“Have a seat, my friend, and I will tell you a story. It will explain everything.”
Humans are blessed with an evolutionary advantage; we can transmit deep concepts and complex information to one another. Lessons learned over generations are passed down. How to hunt. When to plant. How to protect ourselves from those people on the other side of the mountain.
Our individual lives are, at least partially, in service to our group - our community. It’s the only way we can all survive. Stories evolved making heroes of those who worked selflessly toward the greater good. Warriors in battle. Women tending home fires and raising the next generation. Exquisite mythologies taught about the consequences of personal ambition or jealousy or vanity. Each culture develops constellations of characters demonstrating the group’s core values - its basic assumptions about living a good life.
This continues to this day. What stories do we all share that reflect and reinforce our values? In the U.S. we have superheroes in abundance - where might makes right and dominance prevails. Sports stars. Individualism. Native American myths teach interdependence and care for mother earth. There is a dominant culture wherever we go, although our personal communities can thrive in their midst. We can easily find Daoism temples adjacent to SoulCycles.
BOOKS - Our favorite, right? We all know the pleasure of choosing a story and settling in with it. We get pulled into new worlds and experience REAL emotions as we read on. We cry or feel fear or love for characters we know to be fictional - like exercises for our hearts. This is particularly important for those whose lives may be quite barren and devoid of connection. We learn empathy. We see we are not alone. We face our own lives with more insight. For children, books expose them to the range of challenges and opportunities they will face some day and provides them with primers on how to navigate safely. They see that friendships can endure or rekindle. They see that darkness comes before light. They see that they will be able to find their way. They can go crazy for silly or naughty, vicariously stepping out of their real lives.
JOURNALISM - Fresh stories everyday. Our need to understand our environment and to anticipate impending challenges is as great as ever. Stories around the campfire will no longer do. Political, educational, justice and social systems have grown in scope and complexity while our need to understand them grows as well. Local news and newspapers have played a consistent role in reinforcing community values with stories about local heroes or challenges. In today’s global, interconnected and fast-moving world, the challenge to stay informed is greater than ever. We count on journalists to see the forests and the trees and find ways to tell us the stories we need to hear.
MEDIA & SOCIAL MEDIA - Stories on steroids. There is a purpose behind everything we see in the media. Even those sites dedicated to integrity in the news use criteria to decide what is newsworthy. In that process their values drive the content. But most media stories aim to sell us something - ideas, products, causes, faith - subscriptions. They try to build a sense of dependence. “Use this and you will be liked - or saved.” Or, failure to use this can bring shame. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was developed almost a hundred years ago to inform a new approach to marketing. And thus was born the business of leveraging fear of social ridicule to sell us products we may not need. Marlboro men or women with sparkling toilet bowls - that is who you wanted to be. Fat was shamed. Sexual idiosyncrasies were exposed. Even in the background, these stories find their way into how our kids understand their worlds. The culture is having its way with them and it is up to each of us to counter-program for those values we hold most dear.
GOSSIP - Stories at the kitchen table. The power play. Every society or group ultimately relies on its values being taught and practiced in individual homes. Joining in conversations about rule makers and rule breakers provides people with a chance to show agreement with accepted norms - to show belonging. And it brings the added benefit of helping kids (and others) appreciate that someone is watching. Someone is always watching. The advantages of connection - and the risks of detachment - are clear.
MOVIES & TV - Stories on demand, richly told. Although a somewhat more passive activity, movies and TV can bring the advantage of being shared. Watching and rewatching favorites together is a real bonding experience. Movies also have the advantage of introducing musical scores that engage our emotions - sometimes stealthily. In Spinal Tap language, the volume can go up to an 11.
LANGUAGE - Each geography, ethnicity and faith develops its own unique language. People living on the plains have colloquialisms and metaphors referencing big skies while those living near the sea speak of tides and fathoms. Each cultural group develops and enjoys vernacular that may confuse or exclude non-members. Someone from the classical music world might not understand the details of a discussion about heavy metal. Sports language is also highly evolved. I understand one word in four when I listen to sports news - although I recognize it as English. People show belonging by learning the language.