Stories That Can Heal The World
An exploration of storytelling as the foundation of everyday life
From an early age, we are taught to pay attention to the facts. To memorize and recite them.
Unless we were into writing essays or part of a debate team — I wasn’t into either — we probably didn’t do much in the way of connecting those facts. They were something that sat in a book for a long time and in our heads for a much shorter time.
In our High School History classes, we studied human conflicts, alliances, wars, and treaties. For example, according to the official accounts, Napoleon caused all sorts of trouble in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Was it progress or trouble? I can’t quite remember. I do remember, however, stories told in two masterpieces of that era: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
I remember the untold stories of the barricades, of popular discontent, of students organizing in bars, and the indiscriminate deployment of grapeshot artillery in the streets of Paris. Historically irrelevant, but I still remember Eponine’s heartbreaking fate while delivering Marius’ letter to Jean Valjean. I don’t care it was not real. It hurt just the same.
I also remember the gut-wrenching events of a fateful night in the outskirts of Borodino, Russia, where General Kutuzov’s and Napoleon’s armies faced off in the deadliest single-day battle of the Napoleonic Wars. I went through the pages, and I went through the night, triaging the wounded in makeshift medical tents while shutting out the sounds of agony and cannon fire.
We don’t relate to the dates and locations, but we do relate to how we would have lived through them. As listeners and readers, we may be indifferent to the figures but are guaranteed to wonder what we would do if those were our personal stories.
Those are lives experienced in minutes or hours, with lifelong schemas successively activated from our memory archives to help us make sense of the information. Existential and moral dilemmas brought to the fore: “What would I do?”
Stories don’t simply flash before our eyes. They bounce through the lattices of our knowledge, giving us front-row seats to a parade of moral and existential what-if scenarios.
More than reprocessing facts, the biology of mirror neurons in our brains makes us live those experiences — to the extent that we are familiar with them. Through the constructive depths of the mind, the brain reconciles the cognitive dissonance of those alien experiences by reshaping every mental schema fetched to process them.
I didn’t live in 19th-century France or Russia, but I shared, even if just a little, in the experience of the time. My mind rebuilt the scenery, sounds, and smells.
More than words, for several hundred pages, those moments felt almost as real as reality itself. Life, transmitted through narratives.
That is not a romanticized view of literature. That is the science of how our brains work.
A lifetime of stories
Fresh out of the womb, our first cry was a story to the world — a story about being scared and hungry. Our first public story. And if you are reading this, someone listened to it.
Later, as small children, we told stories non-stop, real and imaginary. Stories and drawings and make-believe. They were all stories. We expected to be heard. We still expect someone to listen to them.
As we grew up, and with more to tell, the stories improved. The access to stories increased. Real experiences, borrowed ones too. Books and movies. Access to narratives from the greatest minds, some of the best stories of our time. Of all times.
And even when they are not our real stories, they become ours. And we must share them. The big franchises are equal parts entertainment and shared stories. They fuel our need to share stories and observe reactions when others play the same stories in their brains.
Exchanges like “You have to read this book!” and “Have you already watched this movie?” are not exhortations nor questions. They are the manifestations of a powerful and irresistible force. The same force that compelled that first cry at birth, the arrow of life itself.
For us, the arrow of life does not end in death, even as someone delivers our final stories in eulogy. As long as someone engages with our stories and learns something from them, we get to live another day.
There is a sobering thought when we think of that arrow of life and stories. If nature compels us to tell our stories from the moment of birth, not telling those stories goes against nature, against life. Life also ends when we can no longer tell stories.
That flow of stories can slow down or stop altogether in so many ways, with an arc of its own, passing through censorship, isolation, lack of time, and, with enough barriers, ultimately end in the inability to form stories that can engage the attention of others.
Now think about what that means in a world of asymmetric social media, where we, little by little, learn to passively watch flash-in-a-pan events. Events from a world where we engage with abstract celebrities that do not acknowledge individual stories, not because they do not care, but because it is practically impossible.
Lives of otherworldly performances, athletic prowess, and lavish lifestyles. All-encompassing, ever-present. Unnatural. Inhuman.
Those are terrible stories for us. They are ill-constructed. They do not represent one’s life; not a real one, at least. They portray aspirational fantasies to the rest of the world, making us feel like our stories can never measure up to those impossible tales.
It is hard to not internalize that our stories are uninteresting and not deserving of attention.
Enter generative AI, and now technology goes after the creative minds that somehow remained impervious to the social media onslaught.
Unadulterated poison to the soul, fueled by monistic crypto bros, masters of a single story, who would trade humanity’s mental health for a few dollars and a thousand clicks before giving it a second thought.
Because the noisier stories now hurt all the time, we stop listening and, soon, we stop telling them. And when we are born to tell stories, that silence hurts more than the pain it stops.
When the world hurts, we don’t need silence; we need new narratives.
Luckily for us, we are great at it.
Master the stories
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one the greatest storytellers of all time, graced his congregation with sermons like “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” people stood up and marched through rain, hardship, and violence.
Surely, it takes time, commitment, and a great deal of personal experience to reach that level of mastery. But beneath the skies of soaring rhetoric, we have a world of smaller stories. Even the story of birds is one of slow evolution from crawling and walking first.
Stories don’t need to be life-sized to matter; they matter everywhere.
In medicine, experienced doctors tell us that narratives matter more than charts.
In genetics, the blueprint of life is made of words. Change the words, change their order, and you have different lifeforms.
In construction, building structures requires plans, themselves a sequence of steps carefully chosen from experience and arranged in the correct order to produce a complex result — stories.
Do we even need to go into the relationship between religion and stories?
In law, storytelling binds the entire legal system, from the communication between clients and attorneys passing through jury deliberations and the final ruling. What is precedent if not someone else’s story applied to a different case?
In software development, business use cases, the foundational stones of any product development, are stories about users leading their lives. During development, once these use cases are broken into smaller ones, we call them “user stories.”
“My personal story is not that important.”
Stories don’t need to be long; just look at Sean Hill’s Very Short Story Tweet-sized stories, with quick arcs that engage our imagination in ways one would not think possible.
Stories don’t need to be fantastic; they need life behind them. For the right audience, they will propagate that life through words.
Master your story
Regular stories form life, but why don’t we want to tell them anymore? Why do we see students abdicating their still-developing storytelling gifts to chat boxes that can barely shuffle words into semi-coherence? Why do professionals hurt their careers by deferring their reasoning to machines that can’t tell facts from hallucinations?
Between despair, disillusionment, and misplaced pragmatism, it is natural to arrange our stories with whatever is glowing on fire around us. There are plenty of things on fire, but there is so much more in between. The best stories use the former to illuminate the latter.
We thrive in that in-between. In that glowing circle around the campfire, weaving the real and the imaginary, reveling in anticipation of how others will experience those mental journeys.
The skeptical in us may be ready to pull these metaphoric curtains to reveal a cruel real world hiding in the backstage. A world where stories are of little use against the harsh realities of life.
Those are echoes from the past:“Facts matter!”
Those embers are very real, but like the architect drawing a blueprint or the preacher threading a needle of hope, mastering stories is about choosing and organizing facts without dwelling on them. No less truthful, no less engaging.
Stories can still embrace the harsh, the burning, and the desolate while mixing in the hopeful, the supportive, and the constructive. All that matters is that listeners are pointed in the right direction once the words stop.
Yes, life is confusing and full of facts. That is why we spend so much time in our lives wondering which ones to prioritize, which ones to choose, and which direction to follow.
Now take storytelling, the art of acknowledging facts, organizing them, trimming down fruitless arcs, and leading to conclusions that we think are useful to readers, to listeners. Think about the energy required to master the dreaded blank page.
Now apply those same skills to the facts in our daily lives, and we quickly realize that the art of storytelling, beyond the art, is an essential life skill. And good storytelling is also a shield against stories of the bad kind, the ones that depress, sadden, and demotivate.
Once we stop staring at the facts and start paying attention to the arcs, the world never feels the same.
It takes practice, it takes trying, it takes failing, it takes listening, it takes adjusting, but it is as worth it as it is vital and necessary.
Stories matter. Your stories matter. Everywhere. All the time.
And someone out there needs to hear them.