Once I was walking along a road and I had a long way to go. Billboards, advertising various fast food restaurants, new car dealerships and a brand of shampoo of which I had never heard, lined both sides of the road. I was thirsty and had no umbrella. The clouds began to gather and soon enough a light drizzle fell out of the sky. My shoes begun to make soft squishing noises as I walked. While I was walking, three riding carts came by.
A beautiful stallion with a gold harness pulled a finely painted, wooden cart. A proud older man, sitting in the driver’s seat, did not look at me. He dressed lavishly in a silk vest and jacket. I watched him go by without stopping.
A long haired llama pulled a cart, sleek and low. It was a racing cart. A bearded man, wearing a top hat and silk pajamas, drove the cart. He stopped for a moment and offered me a pair of diving fins. I said, politely, no thank-you and continued on.
An older woman in a cloak with a face full of wrinkles and smiles drove the third cart. Her covered cart was pulled by an old donkey and was enveloped with all manner of stuff. Piles of pots and pans hung on the outside of the cart. Most of the pots were filled with various living plants and dried medicines. The inside of the cart was filled with books. She stopped her cart and looked at me like I was a wet puppy.
Then she reached back into her cart pulled out an umbrella. I thanked her and inquired if she was going the same direction. Turned out she was, and I got a lift for the afternoon. First note that this story is not about fast food or billboards. This is a story about stories and why some stories have legs and others die a peaceful quiet death. The first cart was driven by greed and self-importance and did not really interest me. The second cart was driven for its own sake. Both these carts were interesting and entertaining, but not really useful to my experience in the world at that moment.
The wrinkled old women asked me if I wanted to be included and offered me something I could use as proof of her sincerity. I, being the wet and suffering traveler, was thrilled at the chance of aid and real camaraderie. Such is the role of storytellers in the ancient and modern worlds. A thing that I need and value in my journey and an offer of aid to follow, these are the gifts of storytelling that we, as storytellers,
must bring to each telling. She sat next to me on the bench in the shelter of the umbrella I now held for both of us. We sat for a time in silence on the cart and I watched the world go by.
Two thousand years ago there were no degrees, no telephones, no computers or faxes. People communicated by word of mouth or not at all. Storytelling was the primary form of popular entertainment and politics. Wars were fought - not just in the physical realm – but also in the minds and cultures of the participants through the conflicting mythologies and religious dogmas. The mythologies explained to people how their world was ordered and created. All of these conflicts were expressed, won or lost by storytellers. The losers’ mythologies disappeared beneath an ocean of culture and time.
This process continues today. Today, this process is used in modern advertising to get individuals to purchase things or ideas. Asindividuals, we seek to find the mythological world view that will define us as we travel into the 21st century. We seek stories that will make acceptable what we find difficult, explain complex realities, or help us forget our sorrows and troubles.
As I sat with this wrinkled old woman on a cart full of mysteries, I was amazed to see that all of the billboards and stores that we had been passing were playing out this old story of mythological struggle. Each billboard or store front represented a different story. Here is the way to freedom! Never feel dirty again! Get the easy life! And Heaven awaits at Ed’s Outlet stores! They all seem to shout at once. I saw people entering these stores seeking to complete the stories they had begun by seeing the advertisements. Some were satisfied and some disappointed. All of the customers shared a common belief that they were not in a story, but their cravings and feelings in their lives were random and accidental.
In this way, we are like our ancestors 10,000 years ago. We yearn for a world that is simple and easily explained without modern ideologies that are too oblique or complex. We yearn to return to a simpler time where nature was eden, cleaner, purer and abundant. We yearn to find our way by identifying ourselves in stories as the people we want to be as opposed to the people we are. We deny that we, who are so clearly influenced, are influenced at all by stories or mythologies.
Storytelling and stories define, expand or limit our world as we see fit. They have for thousands of years.
My wrinkled benefactor, who had sheltered me from this world of conflict and strife, began a conversation with me about life and the weather. Slowly we moved into deeper territory and I found myself listening as often as I spoke. I heard how this smiling lady had moved through the world decades before I was born. Slowly the world dropped out of focus and this newly found flower sprang into life.
Human minds are language based. Stories are a way of remembering and passing down information from one generation to the next - information that is self contained, useful and entertaining. For thousands of years, human beings have been naturally selected to pass on their genes that are good at social interaction, working with groups and listening to stories.
In traditional culture, storytelling was a stable way of passing down information between generations. Poisonous berries, snakes, spiders and a pharmaceutical collection of knowledge are based upon traditional culture using storytelling. Any person who failed to take in the good advice offered by the traditional storyteller keeper usually suffered a shorter life span.
So I found myself learning lessons of yonder years. Loves lost and gained. Families torn and friends destroyed by an unkind word. Journeys taken formercy, or just curiosity. All too quickly, I found myself back at my door.
In the information age, we are swimming in a sea of information that threatens to overwhelm and drown us. Everyday we seek to manage this information and to structure the information overload so that we can successfully navigate the storm. In this chaotic environment, most individuals have no quiet place to rest their minds except during sleep.\Storytelling and stories become a familiar safe harbor where we can retreat to an ordered, self-contained world of imagination and useful
We are hard wired to listen and grasp stories. The same genes that lean towards successful social cooperation also lead us to successful storytelling interactions. Good stories are useful, humbling and entertaining as are good storytellers. Storytelling is the most successful, long running, honest and satisfying form of sharing knowledge, written or verbal, available to humans.
Slowly I dismounted from the cart. I was happy to have arrived, but sad somehow to part company. My host waved goodbye and continued on her way without me., each of us better for the journey. Perhaps that is the best result of a good story, that life becomes sweeter and deeper by the telling.