Stories develop compassion and empathy and make us one.
We spend about a third of our waking hours daydreaming. It’s a survival feature. Our constant imagining of a possible future helps prepare us for the future that actually comes. We’ve already practiced giving that speech at the office, or what we’ll do if when a beloved one grows distant. The only cost is our ability to be fully present in a moment. I suppose this is why we love stories.
They bring us to the moment of the story with our imaginations actively creating our own version. In Palauan culture, when an elder is telling a story, it goes something like this: Ma Ngiselacheos a mlo soktii a cholchutl emlo dobechii a dekelel, engii ma delal a mlo doiderekl eng mermang a ielb…” another interjects with “…ma kemangel el kerreel e llechetel chochil a delal melak lobechakl ra ielb.” While you’re listening, you think it happened yesterday – transfixed to the moment of the story about Milad. Then a child interrupts with the question, “Ng mlo nguu a kerreel er ker?” And a response comes explaining a long process of treating coconut husks that’s been treated for flexibility… and the story becomes a wonderful learning discourse. We’re captivated, our elders relay what they heard from their grandparents and tradition is born. The effect is just as powerful as when we curl up with a book on your favorite chair.
The power of story is to make people pay attention and be fully present. The only irony is they are fully present in the story that is not their own. We weep for someone who never lived, thrill at a first kiss that wasn’t ours, and experience the terror of being chased by a psychotic killer while safely resting in a theater seat.
One way cognitive scientists describe human consciousness is a story a brain tells itself. We become the hero of the story and our friends and families the supporting cast. Anyone who opposes us becomes a villain, of course. Viewing consciousness this way explains why story captivates us. The very structure of the story emulates how we understand the world.
Stories do have incredible power not only on our experience but the way stories changes us. When I read a story of a man, my brain begins to live his story, and understand it in a way I can’t reach any other way. When I read about a White woman my consciousness expands to understand my limited perspective in a manner not available in my island rational mind. Story opens up the horizon to another person’s perspective.
Let me share a play entitled Letters to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis. It changed the way I understand grace:
“An old man lies dying. He is filled with grief, remorse, and guilt because of his sinful life. At length he dies, and goes naked and trembling before the Lord for judgment. Jesus has a big bowl of aromatic oil at his fingertips. He dips a sponge into the sweet smelling ointment and washes the man clean of his grime and shame. Then Jesus says, “Don’t brother me with that stuff anymore. Go over here and play.” [/restrict]