Why Tell Stories Today?
An Essay by Craig Coss
"If you want your children to be bright, tell them fairy tales; if you want them to be brilliant, tell them more fairy tales." —Albert Einstein
Meaningful stories are one of the essential ingredients of any culture. Our minds hunger for a good story from the time we are young. It is as if they hold a wisdom in them that our unconscious needs; tales contain certain nutrients that nurture the depths or the soul of a human being. There are parts of us that cannot mature without stories: in this way, they are food. And there a times when a story will heal a wound faster than any poultice. In this way, they are medicine.
Unfortunately, our popular Western culture has gradually stripped the stories from the folk, re-packaged them, and sold them back to the people in a processed form. A family or village storyteller used to be the birthright of every child, but today most storytelling is sold back to our children, or given conditionally with a poisonous apple: advertising.
Stories in the USA have suffered the same fate as our peanuts. A couple of companies realized the most valuable part of peanuts is their oil, an expensive, high-heat oil. They found that if they could extract the peanut oil from the nuts—which is fairly easy to do when they are finely ground—the oil may be sold separately for a good sum. And if an inexpensive hydrogenated oil, processed to resist spoilage, could be substituted for the peanut oil, then the company could sell both: peanut oil, and reconstituted peanut butter. Products such as Skippy and Jiff should really be called peanut margarine, since they contain no real peanut oil. Rather, virtually all of the peanut oil in those products has been extracted (to sell separately) and replaced with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils that are the source of many health problems in our country.
Our culture has processed, repackaged, and advertised our stories in the same way. For the most part, our traditional folk storytellers have been replaced by television sit-coms, space-operas, and news broadcasters, and fat-pocketed film makers with corporate investors.
One essential difference between an elder telling a story to a child and a student reading a story—even the same story—from a book is that the elder can tailor every tale for the listener. Storytellers can link tales to the events of the day or the week; they can customize a tale to fit the capacity of the listener; they can define terms, give examples, and show, with somatic gestures and facial expressions, vocabulary that the children might not understand. A storyteller can listen to the listener, and reciprocate with attention. And tales are told with love, the energy of the moment, the presence of wisdom, and the very weathered hands that pulled the fish ashore.
Since our elders began writing down their knowledge, we have required their presence less and less, and we've gradually segregated our elders to convalescent homes and trailer parks. No longer called "elders," they have become just "elderly." Our children's souls are fed instead by the books that privileged men wrote—stories from one homogenized perspective—stories which (whether by conscious design or unconscious ignorance) have very little nutritional value in them. Rather, they contain high doses of Western materialism.
Today, young people in the USA get their stories mainly from television, video games, and cinema. Television sells its viewers' attention to advertising companies and, in exchange, feeds the culture stories. Because no network would want to hurt it's sponsors, stories distributed via television tend to align themselves with the political agenda of the companies who sponsor the broadcast in the first place. What's more, stories on television are literally used as bait to catch the viewers' attention. Once the viewer's attention is caught, she's bombarded with as much advertising as she can statistically take before changing the channel or turning off the television. If advertising did not work to increase sales, free television sponsored by advertising would have died out long ago. Ads work wonders to hypnotize, influence, hook, condition, persuade, and control the populace—especially those who cannot afford alternatives and who are most starved of stories.
Even the nightly news is called a story, and the picture painted by these stories again and again is one of a bleak land of fear and bad news. There's no allegory, allusion, metaphor, or meaning behind these stories. The number of people killed is not even accompanied by a phone number to call if you want to help out. Over and over, the news stories stimulate and manipulate our imaginations to construct a world of disaster, fear, and violence. Why? Because those emotions sell products. The news makes you feel bad, and the ads provide the beautiful people, the archetypal luster, the freedom, the music, the health, and the solution to make you feel better. The advertised goods are the answer to the problems of our world. This is what, again and again, we are taught through television. The news is only half the story: the resolution follows "after this."
Of course, television was first used to communicate to a broad populace in the Third Reich. It was proven there to unite public opinion and control the masses. Why wouldn't corporate America use the same tools? The devastating effects of television on culture are legion, and now multiple studies have confirmed that hours of exposure to television and video games are inversely proportionate to a child's academic success. But one unfortunate side effect that I think most people don't see is that young adults in our culture raised on television have become suspicious of stories. We've become jaded somewhere because for hundreds of hours we've been given stories laced with advertising. We don't trust storytellers anymore. We feel that they're not giving to us; rather, they are magicians, using a slight of hand trick to steal our coin and leave us hungry. Those of us who have grown into critical thinkers have become deconstructionists, picking apart the bait to find the hook, lest we na•vely swallow it. And so we should, for most of the free stories available in our culture are packaged with political or religious propaganda, or poisoned with the hypnosis of advertising.
Tragically, it's not only on television that companies are capitalizing on our longing for meaningful stories. In the world of marketing and product developments, designers and marketers begin with a story before any products are designed. They conjure a typical American dream that includes products they can envision making, and they tailor entire characters and lifestyles around those characters. Again, the archetypal world—the unconscious world of gods, goddesses, heroes and adventures—is all harnessed by marketers and designers for their products. These forces are used not to educate, nurture, heal, or inspire the culture; on the contrary, they are used to extract money from it, to prey upon it, and to take what it can from the people. Story and the world of story is now being used very consciously, with pointed attention and with billions of dollars of backing, to hook our imagination via an identification with particular archetypes. "You could be great, beautiful, rich, powerful—loved—if you only had this," is the message we receive again and again.
How do we combat such forces that threaten to strip us of our very heritage as human beings—our stories; that re-package them to sell them back to us for their profit? We must become storytellers. We must tell stories about our lives, we must tell our myths. We must give back to the culture stories designed not to create fear or desires, but tales that put teaching before a profit, and are told without profits in mind.
We must share tales that warn us of the tricksters that would steal from us—tales that expose to us the tricks tricksters use, or our children will grow into naive and gullible adults, learning only through getting taken.
We must tell of the powers our ancestors were given when they worked in harmony with Life and Love. We must share the wisdom of generosity, of the soul's beauty over the transitory beauty of costly goods. We are already one people: rather than preying upon ourselves like a cancer, we must bring life, light, and love into the corners of our culture—our world—that need it most.
I encourage you to learn a tale you love and put it in your own words. Sew it to the fabric of your own heart, season it with your own experiences, and tell it to someone you care about. Or take an event that happened in your own life and give it life by telling it again. If you tell of your problem and how you overcame it—no matter what the resolution—you will teach others something, and they will learn to recognize your path: whether to follow or avoid it. If we re-infuse our culture with stories, our need will gradually get met without television or video games, without shiny shoes that make us feel like heroes or costly cars that give us the illusory mask of a champion.
Fairy tales tell us that an inner steed of great power waits within our hearts: it is the mare who has been neglected, the pock-covered horse, the one lying in the mud in the far corner of our stable. Find her; she is within you. Feed her; she eats fresh oats from the field, or the flaming cinders of your hearth. Comb her mane and tail, and ride upon her back; her pocks will fall away. Take the steed of your power upon the hills, into the dark forests of the world; she will guide you along the way. She will speak to you as you ride the winds. She knows your heart's desire. And she will take you home.
©2005 Craig Coss