In a North American context, it can be easy to view stories solely as a means of entertainment. Perhaps this might explain the nostalgia literary romantics feel when today’s youth are more engaged with their iPhone apps than yesteryear’s classic masterpiece. If stories only serve to entertain, then perhaps people are justified in casting them aside if they no longer fulfill their purpose.
However, I would argue that stories serve as much more than entertainment. Stories illuminate truth. Even fictional stories, being untrue by nature, use the art of invention to reveal real life situations and values. Stories are useful in that they tell us something about ourselves, something that we didn’t know before or perhaps were too afraid to understand without the colored trappings of a narrative.
Stories can recount true events, of course. Histories, biographies, news stories, and personal narratives attempt to capture and portray events as they happened. Yet what is fascinating about real life narratives is that no one is capable of escaping their own perspective, which can sometimes taint the words on the page with emotions and ideas that were never a part of the story to begin with. We need to know the storyteller before we can trust the narrative.
In many cultures, stories are the preferred method of instruction. While it is easy to tell children to obey their parents, it may be more effective to show them the benefits of their obedience through a story. Similarly, stories may be used to correct behavior when it may be difficult or inappropriate to confront someone in authority directly. Disguising characters and events—even if ever so lightly—in a story changes the perspective.
For example, Nathan was a prophet who needed to confront King David. Not only had David committed adultery with Bathsheba, but he had also sent her husband to the front lines of battle to be killed. However, instead of directly confronting the king initially, Nathan tells a story. The tale depicts a rich man who had plenty of lambs, but when a traveler came to visit, the rich man took a lamb from his poor neighbor, robbing him of everything he had. David is incensed at this injustice. He is already thinking of penalties for the perpetrator, until Nathan reveals, “You are the man!” The revelation drives David to repentance.
Stories can wrap themselves into other stories like a Russian doll. Keep reading and you find something more. One of my favorite literary heroines is Scheherazade. In a far away land, the king was betrayed by his wife and closest friend. Shocked by her infidelity, the king vowed that he would never be wounded by a woman again, and began a custom that devastated the entire land. Each night he would take a virgin girl to his bed, only to kill her the next morning. One night’s love could never lead to a betrayal, especially when the girl’s life was in his hands.
Yet one woman took a stand against this practice. Scheherazade knew it had to stop, but the only way she could abolish the custom was to offer herself to the king. Despite her father’s pleading, she risks her life and volunteers. Yet something different happens that night. She begins to tell the king a story, one so fantastic and wild that he is dying to know how it ends. She plans it well, however, and comes to the climax right at dawn, when she is supposed to be executed. The king spares her for that day, provided she can come back to finish the story. While he has every intention of killing her after the story is done, Scheherazade hastily begins another tale and a pattern is established. This goes on for 1001 nights, until at last she is able to plead with the king for her life and he grants it to her. She saves her life through storytelling.
Do you know of any stories that could save your life? If you were in her place, what stories would you tell?
We’re all like Scheherazade in that we tell ourselves stories every day. We need to come to some conclusion as to why we are here, if there is purpose to this life, and if our actions make a difference. Furthermore, these stories are not simply ones that we tell; they are stories that we live by and base our lives upon. We live as if certain principles are true; in essence we are constructing a narrative about the world and our place in it. We’re taking a risk, of course; we can’t be certain that our stories will save us. Yet even though our ground may seem shaky, there is an even greater risk than ours:
We could choose not to tell a story at all.