Tim O’Brien writes in his novel, The Things They Carried: “This too is true: stories can save us.” Stories seem essential to human civilization, but can they save lives? Or does O’Brien exaggerate as a way to explain his Vietnam experience? As an English teacher, someone who has chosen to pass on stories and the craft of their telling, I see this as an essential question.
Oral story-telling is as old as human history. We are imbued with these stories from the womb. Our songs, from the earliest lullabies to the latest hit singles, tell us tales of love, pain, and overcoming troubled times.
Stories tell of the hero who reluctantly saves the society. From Jesus to Will Smith, we’ve seen that pattern emerge. The hero’s tale may have a twist, involving a quest for “the truth” as in a police drama. Sometimes that truth is within the hero—say, for example, in Hamlet, or a noir detective.
Before my Irish-immigrant grandmother died, my aunt Mary took the time to interview her, recording memories that spanned the last century, and placed each of us into that arc. Her stories of raising her family during the depression give me a deeper understanding of why my father is so careful with his money. Now, I see that in myself when I compare brands at the grocery store. That’s not exactly heroic, but it acts like a magnifying-mirror to my world’s truths.
But stories don’t always reflect what’s admirable; often, we look down upon the characters. These stories tell of a poor shlub’s relationship gone wrong, then right, then, perhaps left in doubt again as in Woody Allen’s films or most any sitcom.
When I was 16, I crashed on my bicycle. I was gushing blood from my upper lip when I managed to flag down a police officer to ask for help. He told me that the closest emergency room was several miles away and then took off.
So stories save us, like the old Kodak commercials used to say, by capturing the moments of our lives. They preserve us—in narrative form—for future generations. But they do so much more.
They provide us template to guide us: yes, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?), a slogan I found trite when I first encountered it on a student’s wristband a few years back, really does ring true, as does “what should Jessica do?” in the latest blockbuster movie or TV program. In other cases, they provide us with perspective—“At least my life is better than that.”
Stories’ power lies in their ability to create identity. My family stories provide a common bond, set of understandings, even a language. My aunt preserved that. And when I can say “remember when…” to a person, I’ve established true connection.
I believe stories are what make us human; they are the evidence of our consciousness, the proof of why we matter. I plan to write down as many as I can.
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