The Power of Stories

By Thomas Teuwen
Yuval Noah Harari calls it our superpower. Rutger Bregman hails it as a tool to bring out the best in us. It seems to distinguish us from almost all other life forms. It has conquered worlds. It has led to the cruelest atrocities in the history of our civilization. It has taken us to the moon. And it makes us feel safe in our beds at night. It is the ability to tell – and believe – stories.
Jon Alexander reminds us that for most of human history we have lived in a world dominated by the subject story. We looked to kings, emperors, pharaohs or heads of the church to lead us. We saw ourselves as mere subjects, powerless to change the future. Then with the dawn of the industrial age we entered a world that was dominated by the consumer story. Our lives were guided by a simple narrative; to throw off the chains, and achieve success, we must consume. More is better. Now the consumer narrative is breaking down and we stand at a crossroad. With the growing complexity of our world the subject story is staging a comeback – offering simple answers to complex problems – inviting us to trade our freedoms for security – our compassion for blame. But Jon offers another alternative; the citizen story.
Why does this matter? Because we tell ourselves and each other stories about all kinds of things: What (and who) is beautiful, who can be trusted and who can’t, when it’s ok to feel old. We tell stories about what it means to be wealthy and who deserves to be. We tell stories about “others” – heroes or villains – and how we should admire or condemn them. We tell stories about what is possible and what isn’t. We tell stories about what to pay attention to and what to ignore. But most importantly perhaps, we tell stories about what is fact and what is fiction.
Inspiration is triggered by stories; as is fear, love, courage, sadness and sometimes even pain. We tell stories through music, art, literature, theater and dance. We share stories through media or casual conversation. Stories bring us together – and tear us apart. Stories teach us about the past and anticipate the future. Stories change – imperceptibly and slowly at times, sometimes radically and overnight. And as John Shelby Spong liked to remind us, the moment we start questioning a story, it is destined to change.
Most of us recognize the power of stories – we read them to our kids – but perhaps we don’t pay enough attention to how we, as individuals, help shape and perpetuate them. We casually use stories to justify stories and weave them together in a tapestry that is the fabric of our civilization. It is our stories that guide our thinking and our actions. They exert real influence on our daily lives. They shape our reality. Change the story and it changes the reality. 
Stories, if shared by large numbers of people, allow us to cooperate with one another even if we don’t trust each other or even know each other. Our perception of money is the perfect example of such a story. It only exists because we believe in it and the governments, institutions and banks that create, manage and “store” it for us. It allows us to cooperate with strangers halfway around the globe. Stocks, bonds and even the real-estate we call our home are all valued based on this story. But if we all stop believing the story, it all becomes worthless.
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A common story reinforces the idea that wealth, in the form of money, equals quality of life. This in spite of repeated studies confirming that above a basic level, money does not increase our happiness. Another outdated story tells us that politics in a free society is all about opposition and power. At a time when we need all hands on deck to address the challenges we face, this story does little to foster collaboration. Instead of nurturing a culture of safety and bold innovation, the story perpetuates the opportunistic mudslinging that leads to systemic intransigence and polarization. 
Real change – whether in the arena of politics, economics, education or energy – requires the support of a common story. Sure we can bring about incremental change by opposing policies or protesting the status quo. But that change is fragile – vulnerable to be reversed at any time – if it is not rooted in our collective narrative – the story we tell ourselves and each other – what I like to call the ethos of our civilization.
Yes, being able to invent, tell, share and believe stories is indeed our superpower. Our civilization was built on it. Our survival depends on it. And we will use it to destroy our world if we are not wise, careful and engaged. But that is a story we don’t tend to tell. That story has massive implications and comes with endless responsibilities – responsibilities most of us would just as soon not be faced with. 
And yet, perhaps unwittingly, we all help to shape the story of our civilization every day. What we buy, where we go, who we see, even how we feel, reinforces some stories and relegates others to the dustbin of history. We do it without thinking about it, believing we are driven by need or want, passion or indifference, love or hate. But in fact we are the co-creators of our reality – we are the masters of our story.
Perhaps we should be telling ourselves new stories. Stories of hope and love. Stories of collaboration and cooperation. Stories of trust and respect. Stories of the value of our natural world. Stories of a future we can be proud to pass on to our children. We need these new stories if we are to address the multiple, complex and interconnected challenges of our time.