“Human beings have always been myth makers…from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.” (Karen Armstrong A Short History of Myth)
Stories can be magical things. They can transport us to other times and places. They can send us on adventures, transform us into heroes, into villains, allow us to live other lives.
Sometimes the power of a story is that is shows us what it is like to be someone else. What it feels like to live in another’s skin and under very different circumstances. Stories like The Help by Kathyrn Stockett show us the emotional experiences of black women who raised white babies in the American South during the 1950s. Stories like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americana reveal the experiences of Nigerians living abroad in the USA and UK, and what it is like to return to Nigeria with those experiences of the ‘west’.
But other times the power of a story is that it reveals something about ourselves. Something hidden that we hadn’t realised before. Stories that tell of the hero or heroine’s journey and reflect the path we are all on to overcome adversities and grow in ourselves. Stories that explore our human predicament and reflect our most basic questions — where have we come from? Where are we going? Who are we in our heart of hearts, in our deeper self? How can we explain those magical moments that transport us from our ordinary concerns and show us a world that is expansive and sublime?
This is the most powerful role of stories.
And this is, of course, what stories can do that nothing else can. In a world reliant on ‘facts’ and ‘numbers’ and ‘proof’, stories operate on a different plane where things are never ‘true’ or ‘false’ but simply ‘explorable’. “A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time,” writes Armstrong.
This has been the role of stories and myths throughout the ages.
For a long time, in our ancient human past, it was not Religion that helped people examine the Great Questions of existence, but Myth. Long before monotheistic understandings of spirituality, human beings gathered around evening fires and gazed at the stars overhead and told stories that explained how they related to this great universe and how they felt the sacredness of the earth also within them.
“A myth…is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information. If it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed. If it ‘works’, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth.” (Karen Armstrong A Short History of Myth)
In recent times, mythical ways of relating to the world have fallen by the wayside in favour of Renaissance logic which corresponds with facts. The thing is, when we wonder about the Bigger Questions, about the ‘meaning of life’ or ‘our purpose’ or ‘what is our relationship to the natural world’ or anything like that, we are now looking for ANSWERS which fit into our understanding of facts.
Our understanding of ‘Answers’ is that they must be definable, explainable (and if they come with an equation, oh joy!). We have lost the ability to understand that these Bigger Questions don’t have answers like that. They have ‘understandings’, ‘wisdoms’, and these can often only be communicated from one person to another through story or myth, where the meaning is deep and spoken in that other language that Paolo Coelho called the Language of the World, a language based on archetypes and meanings that exist deep within our bones.
They help us identify with our fellow human beings, not just those of our national or religious or ethnic identity. They help us remember that our earth is not just a pile of ‘resources’ but a sacred system of which we are a part. They help us come to terms with the inevitability of death–perhaps the greatest challenge of all. And they show us how we can live a ‘better’, more meaningful life…not by giving us ‘facts’ but by showing us what such a life can look like.