Gus Cuddy | Essays:

The power of stories

19 November 2018

Our brains are hardwired for narrative. We piece together the threads of our lives and cling to a story we tell ourselves. Often, these are unhelpful. But when we’re presented any information, we string it together to make a story. Our brains can’t help it.

This happens for evolutionary reasons. Long ago, when human beings were figuring out what it meant to be human beings, we invented stories.

Stories have sustained the human race.1 It is what differentiates us from other animals. The stories of religion, government, and money still power us today. But these are all invented, simply products of the human mind. A monkey won’t give you two bananas for a piece of paper that promises ten bananas. Monkeys can’t mass organize into fictional ideas of governments and rights and laws and policies. Animals don’t have deities.

Stories are essential to our humanity, and essential to our progress. And I believe that if we tell better stories, we can improve everything. On a macro and micro level. But maybe that’s too lofty. Maybe if we just tell better stories, we can make better theatre.

Theatre is the primal, ritualistic gathering around the campfire and hearing of a story. It touches something deep inside of us. Even as stories are becoming ubiquitous with technology, we can’t ignore the ancient catharsis of theatre. It is storytelling at its most raw essence.

Stories and narrative are becoming even more overbearing with social media. Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook have tried to co-opt the term “stories”, encouraging us to turn our lives into narrative pieces. But the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we consume: these can be dangerous things, also.

We need to trust in the power of stories, and take the responsibility of telling them seriously. They make up all the threads of our consciousness. They can be our savior or our ruin. They can lead us to the gates of hell and back. And just because they are invented, doesn’t mean they aren’t true.

  1. This is the thesis of Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, and these ideas are adapted from it.