Stories derive power from being retold. But we can always choose to stop telling old stories and start telling new ones
[Previous: Science lets us tell better stories]
I’ve touched on the purpose and the power of stories. They’re how we pass on knowledge and how we justify the state of the world, for good or for ill. For those on top, stories tell them why they deserve their privileged place; and for those on the bottom, stories give them the strength to persevere and the hope of deliverance.
But stories serve a deeper purpose. They’re not mere reflections of reality, narratives we invent to explain why things are the way they are. Stories play an active role in creating reality.
Terry Pratchett put it best in his Discworld series:
Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling…
And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper… This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.
Within Pratchett’s fictional universe, this was literally true, like a law of physics. Obviously, stories don’t possess the same causal power in the real world. But that doesn’t mean this conceit is pure whimsy. It hints at a deeper truth of human nature: namely, the stories we retell tend to come true.
This is because the more often you repeat an idea to yourself, the more familiar and plausible it becomes, and the more power it gains to steer your actions. In this way, a good story can carry an idea from inconceivable to conceivable, and from conceivable to actual. It can convert ideas that were once wild, shocking or outrageous into unquestionable common sense—or vice versa. (As the prophet said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”)
The most obvious application of this is in politics. If your heroes are people who changed the world through nonviolent means, you’ll be motivated to follow their example. On the other hand, if your political mythology is stuffed with tales of heroic uprisings, righteous bloodshed and glorious death in combat… then a resort to arms may seem natural, even necessary, whenever you don’t get your way. Stories of peace beget peace; stories of violence beget violence.
But stories do much more than swing elections or incite insurrections. So many aspects of our lives that we take for granted—so many things that seem fixed, stable, unchangeable—are, fundamentally, patterns of information stored in the brains of our fellow humans.
Money, property and capitalism; gender roles, sexual mores, race and class distinctions, and cultural customs; laws, constitutions, borders and nations: these are all stories, stories that are true because they’re rehearsed and retold from one generation to the next. And if we cease telling these stories and start telling different ones, human society will be transformed in radical ways.
Even science and history are rooted in stories. They refer to objective reality, so they’re not arbitrary in the way that so much of human culture is. But the way we interpret them is very much a contingent aspect of the stories we tell. Stories can cause scientists to be viewed as authorities worthy of deference, or they can reduce them to voices crying in the wilderness. They can remind us of the lessons of history, or blind us to them so we make the same mistakes again and again.
A story can’t turn aside a hurricane, but it can persuade people to build levees or relocate their homes to higher ground. A story can’t cure a virus, but it can get people to wear masks and stay home, to give breathing space to exhausted doctors and nurses and time for researchers to develop a vaccine. A story can’t halt the rising seas, but it can convince people of the urgency of transitioning from dirty fossil fuels to clean energy.
Because the stories we rehearse are the ones that are most likely to come true, we’d better tell stories that work out well for us. As I wrote in my post about hopepunk versus grimdark, bleak, pessimistic stories about humanity’s inevitable downfall can become self-fulfilling prophecies. But the opposite is true as well: optimistic stories can fill people with hope, attract them to your banner, and make their own fulfillment more likely.
Of course, we shouldn’t underestimate the magnitude of the task. What gives a story power is that thousands or millions of people are all rehearsing it. Getting that many people to adopt a new story, all at once, is a gigantic effort.
At the same time, the fact that civilization is essentially made of stories ought to inspire a realization of how changeable it is. The marble facades, the bronze statues, the soaring cathedrals, the pomp and circumstance—everything that’s meant to convey an impression of stability and permanence—are mere window dressing for the true source of our institutions, which is simply a set of beliefs in people’s heads.
When the stories we tell no longer serve us, we can stop telling them and start telling new ones. This has happened countless times before in world history, and it can happen again in our lifetimes. To paraphrase Margaret Mead, never doubt that a good story can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.