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Along the Way
Power of stories
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We are a hardheaded, practical people. We are realistic in our decision making and face the world as it really is. We dont deal in fiction. We deal in fact! At least, this is what we like to believe about ourselves. Yet, how close to the truth is such a self- assessment?

Did you ever notice how small childrens playtime becomes a replay of the latest movie or cartoon theyve seen. Years ago when I was in Chuuk as a Peace Corps Volunteer, every time a new kung-fu played at one of the local theaters the next day the neighborhood would be abuzz with small children jumping around trying out the latest martial arts moves they had seen the night before. In their minds they were Bruce Lee fighting the latest villain.

Back when my 19 year-old was just a pre-schooler, he used to go around with a glove on one hand and insist that he was Michael Jackson. If he wasnt Michael Jackson that day, then you could be sure that he was "Mr. T".

Psychologists tell us that such role-playing is a normal part of our psychological development. We try on different roles as children that society makes available to us. Unconsciously, we pick and choose from all the roles we have tried on and eventually develop a set of roles with which we become very familiar. These roles become part of our personality over time. Indeed, part of the maturing process during out teen years is to settle on a stable set of roles that become the building blocks of our identity. By identity, I mean our sense of "who" we are as persons. Other people would perceive this as our attitudes, values, and character.

Stories are a powerful tool in shaping our sense of self. As we hear, read or watch a story unfold, we get caught up in the characters and their adventures. We look at the world through their eyes for awhile. We share in their experiences as if they were our own.

This is valuable, as it helps us to learn important life lessons without going through all of the heartache that the lesson would ordinarily require if experienced first hand.

Stories allow us to grasp breathtaking visions of what the world can be like and what we can become. They gives us an experience of the importance of justice, compassion, and wisdom, as well as the terrible danger when these virtues are lacking.

Some stories are more important than other to us as individuals and as a people. The story of Jesus, as handed down through the Gospels, has influenced the lives of billions of people over the past two millennia. This story as so influenced some persons that their lives have taken on saintly qualities and become associated with the Jesus story. We see this in the life of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Peter and St. Paul, as well as more recent lives, such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. However, the gospels are not the only stories that influence us.

School children in the States are taught the story of the young George Washington who when he chopped down his fathers cherry tree confessed it to his father. He would not tell a lie, even as a mere child. Abraham Lincoln is described as walking many miles to ensure that a customer in the store where he was working as a youth received one or two pennies in change that had been forgotten. It is doubtful that these stories have any basis in actual events but they help children to understand the importance of honesty. They have become part of the American folklore, part of the body of stories that help to shape us as members of the American nation. In addition, the stories of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Horatio Alger, and a multitude of other fictional characters have become a shared heritage and helped shape the national character. In addition to the classic tales that we learn in school as part of our national heritage, there are other stories in circulation that have a profound influence on the way that we live from day to day.

As a teenager I was a voracious reader of science fiction. I loved stories by Robert Heinlein, Arthur Clarke, Roger Silverberg, Ray Bradbury and the other great storytellers of the genre. These tales helped stretch my imagination beyond the limits of 1960s America, giving me a vision of a world without boarders. I gained a sense that humanity was more than my limited experience. I began to grasp that no matter how advanced technology became human nature was essentially the same. The important issue in making a better world was not better technology but a wiser humanity.

The stories we read as youngsters or watch in the movies not only help shape us individually but the affect the popular culture. Surveys of NASA employees and engineers in a wide range of technological jobs reveal that a very large portion of them were influenced by the science fiction greats, as well as Star Trek and Star Wars. Did you ever notice how much todays technology recreates the mythical future depicted on Star Trek? Think of it; cell phones, self-opening sliding doors, and palm computers all began as part of Star Treks vision of the future. Nowadays when you see youngsters engaged in a make-believe sword fight you can be sure that they are playing Star Wars, not pirates.

Stories shape our vision of the world around us. The stories can be a fairly detailed recreation of actual events or pure fantasy with no relationship to events we observe around us. The closeness of the story to actual events has no particular relationship to the impact of the story on our vision of the world. Indeed, pure fiction like Star Trek or Star Wars can have a much greater impact. The impact seems to be related to the degree to which the story moves us emotionally and speaks to our sense of meaning. The impact is not slight.

A woman who had a difficult childhood sought solace in romance novels from an early age. I met her when she was trying to obtain an annulment from her second or third husband. Her relationships normally began as intense, romantic experiences. They quickly lead to marriage. Starting out very happy, the woman soon experienced the dawning of marital struggle and adjustments that are the basic work of relationship building. Within two to three years the woman had given up on the marriage and she was moving on.

Romance novels were the fundamental stories by which this woman structured her world. Love and happiness were intense and romantic, as in the novels. As the relationship moved from intense romance to something more domestic, she felt that the relationship had fallen apart. She was unhappy dealing with the more mundane aspects of a marital relationship. Yet, it was only here, in facing the daily struggles without the blinding glasses of romance, that any hope for the relationship could be found. As a teen the romance novels offered the petitioner hope and imaginary escape from her mothers nagging and fathers alcoholism. As an adult, the vision offered by the romance novels became a trap keeping her from being able to work through the difficulties inherent in any relationship and discover a much richer and sustaining marital relationship.

None of this is new. You can read about the power of stories as an influence on our understanding of the world in the works of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Bruno Bettleheim, Joseph Campbell and a host of others. The more you understand the power of stories, the better prepared you will be to take charge of the situation somewhat.

First of all, if you know that stories will exert an influence on your vision of yourself and the world around you, you can be more selective in what stories to which you expose yourself. A steady fare of violent, depressing books, TV, movies and magazines will surely reinforce an already somewhat dark and dreary view of things. A steady fare of materials that are inspiring, positive, peaceful, and hopeful will reinforce the positive and hopeful aspects of your personality as well. Such stories give you models by which you can understand the world. When the models are hopeful, our understanding of the world takes on the same perspective.

Second, realize the impact that stories can have on you and how others can use stories to manipulate you. This can be as minor as enticing you to buy their brand of cereal or as profound as changing your fundamental values. In a story you may find the main character likeable. You may even identify with the character. But that doesnt mean that what he does in the story is right, reasonable or even helpful. Anytime you use the media you must be careful. If a story engages you, try to figure out why. What is it about the story that you relate to so well? What values are being assumed by the story? Are these healthy values? Are they moral values? You may not be Captain Kirk of Star Trek except in your fantasy world. However, the Star Trek series, movies, and books have shaped your openness to adventure and commitment to your responsibilities. However, the values expressed by this story universe are generally positive and uplifting. On the other hand, if your fantasy world is filled with violence, depravity, the glorification of self, and greed, you are opening yourself to some real problems.

Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.