by Matthew Roser
Are Stories Alive?
A living entity is defined as something possessing the capacity for “growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.” With such a broad definition, celebrated British author Neil Gaiman was prompted to muse about the idea that stories are living:
“Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.”
Whether we call them living, stories manifest many of the qualities found in life. They become like some creative virus that is born from within our mind and transmitted through our words or the mental vibrations that command our fingers to type or our hands to write. Consider Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and the other countless tales that have flavored our world. Many of us recall the Disney adaption, but these beautiful creations are far older and stranger in their original creation. Yet, they have survived and flourished in our time to bring about a relevant message that is older than most religions.
Why Are Stories Created?
In the 1992 preface to Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl recalls the moment when he decided to stay in Austria, a decision that would impact the rest of his life. He had received an invitation to pick up his immigration visa in order to flee to greener pastures in America, where he could continue his work in psychology. Yet, the thought of abandoning his parents left Frankl with an uncomfortable quandary.
One day as he was visiting his parents’ home, Frankl noticed a ruined piece of marble sitting on a table. He asked his father where the stone had come from. Frankl’s father explained that the National Socialists had burned down the largest synagogue in Vienna and that the marble was a piece of the Ten Commandments that he had recovered from the blaze.
Inscribed into the stone was a single gilded letter in Hebrew that stood for one of the Ten Commandments. Frankl quickly asked which commandment, causing his father to answer: “Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land.”
With that powerful message, or as Frankl wrote, “a hint from Heaven,” his immigration decision was made easy: Frankl decided to stay with his parents and allow the visa to lapse.
This anecdote is a profound example of how stories become more than fanciful events and silly characters. Stories influence our thinking and create a framework for our decision-making. Stories guide our hopes and give possibility to our endeavors.
As Frederick Nietzche wrote: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” And how perfect a way to describe the visions that pit us against the many challenges we must overcome to achieve greatness. If we could not see over the bumps of adversity, or if we had no other reference to compare our challenges with, then we might simply surrender.
But we do have comparisons. We can see our struggles in the books and movies and quiet conversations shared with a friend. These build faith, self-reliance, and strength. These stories are the unseen fabric that weaves between the seems of mortality.
The Appeal of Legends
Every form of story contributes a powerful verse to our character, yet legends root more deeply into our psyche. A legend is a type of story that employs the use of historical events or characters who once lived.
When Victor Frankl wrote of his travails inside the concentration camps, his writing was more than a simple record of his experiences. His words became legend and inspired its readers. He often recounted how he would daydream and fantasize of when he would be free and continue with his work in logotherapy. His thoughts also drifted to his wife and of when they would reunite again.
Although not all of these wishes became reality, they are poignant reminder that Frankl’s mental desires inspired him to trudge along and endure. And when the reader interprets these same words, they are inspired by the reality that these “stories” Frankl concocted inside of his brain had somehow influenced the outcome of his situation. Thus, a legend is born.
Jesus Christ and Mohammad are also legendary characters, and there is a great deal of evidence pointing to their existence. Whether the miracles they are described as performing is true is another kind of debate. However, the power in religion and its ability to endure resides in the strong appeal that legends offer.
Because these religious events are detailed in historical places and census data confirms the existence of their actors, a certain unshakeable verisimilitude exists that cannot be wholly denied even thousands of years from their original events.
But stories do not have to be grandiose and told in lofty language, ensconced in gold ornaments and garishly boasted. These can be ordinary tales that caution or invigorate the listener. One example may be an alcoholic grandfather, thus causing us to question whether we can control ourselves once we reach for that bottle. Or if our personal hero decided to drop out of school to build their empire from scratch — could we too not have the same entrepreneurial spirit inside of us? Legends are merely stories with a higher capacity for reproducibility.
Are Stories Still Created Today?
Every once in a while we will hear in the news of how one person stole an “idea” from another. Maybe it will be the plot in a book, movie, video game, or the subject matter of a song. This goes to show that we are starving for these creations. And it also demonstrates that the stories that exist can change and grow into new forms.
Because of our new technologies and our ability to instantly communicate, stories are created more quickly than ever before. Have you ever seen chain emails or messages in social media that caution the reader that they must pass the message along, lest they suffer some grizzly unforeseeable fate? While these modern-age stories have more hosts to bear them, their survivability is another matter.
However, some of our more prominent stories are threatened now because of the distracting nature of our technology-intensive culture. Poet laureate Andrew Motion, along with many other professors of literature, lament over the lack of Biblical knowledge found in younger generations. Motion says, “these stories are primitive. They speak to us about human nature and the recurring patterns of human behavior.
“. . . Yes, you can have a conversation without referring to where these ideas come from, but you can have a much richer one by connecting them to their original sources.” He continues on to describe his woes with his students: “. . . I do think there is a real problem with the education system that has allowed these great stories to disappear, to fade out of the diet everyone gets at school. It’s an essential piece of cultural luggage.”
And indeed, without the Bible, much of English literature would simply cease to exist. Many of our beloved poems and beautiful novels would never have populated the pool of mental possibilities that humanity shares. This kind of social movement then threatens the order in our world. Will younger generations recall that the Resurrection was the event when Gandalf arose in The Lord of the Rings, or will they see or even know of the similarities that that particular tale shares with Jesus? Will the egg still come from the chicken – or will the egg come from the factory and the chicken forgotten?
An Endangered Species
Stories are frail and easily forgotten. As if born from a mighty tree, these saplings fly away and grow with only trace influences that they once came from an ancient source, if we take the time to truly understand. Our world so readily relies on these tales for guidance and inspiration. Yet, the accelerating pace of temporal culture is tearing holes in the old foundations that supported us. If we don’t take the time to preserve and understand our past, then perhaps we will have a sad future where texts and tweets are the only form of cultural glue we can rely upon. Stories matter.
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