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Why Stories Matter

By Ellen Moore

"That's the story of my life," said the young woman as she slammed the file on the table and ran out of the meeting. Accustomed to such behavior from her, we resumed without comment. Wherever she went, trouble followed.

"If that's the story of her life," I thought, "Then maybe she needs a new story." On that day, I began thinking about the ways stories teach and form us. Whether we realize it or not, we each have a core of stories we live by. Stories determine the ways we see ourselves and the world, and the principles by which we decide to act. Our internal stories set our intentions, since what we look for, we tend to find. Stories give us purpose and direction. "To tell a story is to construct a life," wrote Deena Metzger. In other words, we are the stories we tell ourselves.

The world is made up of stories, and so are we.
Stories shape our experience; at the same time we put our experiences into words and stories. Stories and experiences reinforce one another in a circular fashion. We've been given those stories by our culture, our teachers, our religious leaders, our families. Almost everything we know was taught to us in the form of a story.

Stories serve as foundations for our lives.
We take the stories our families have handed us, and at an early age we begin to live out those scripts. With help from our parents and others around us, we start to shape ourselves and our environments to fit the story. In a sense, we choose the costumes, props, and sets for our story, then set about hiring (and firing) the actors to play out the parts we've "written" for them. Seen in this light, we may blame others less. Ever notice how a succession of "actors" will fill the same role over time?

Stories give shape to our experience.
Even the name of a story has power because it focuses our attention and provides a meaning and framework for the story. Titling a story involves intention, judging, and interpreting as we go. We tend to find what we're looking for, so a story directs our search, however unconsciously. When we write or say to ourselves, "This is a story about..." we choose a direction for the story to take. If we begin to give an account of our victimization, for example, we select details to support that construction. But if we set out to tell a story of empowerment, liberation, or redemption, our attention will focus on facts and events to build toward that conclusion. In telling a story, we must choose the elements that comprise it.

Stories bear witness to truth.
Without witnesses and their descriptions of their experiences to create documentation, our personal and cultural history would be lost. Letters, journals, chronicles, documentary films, even fiction accounts preserve metaphorical truth. Since stories have the power to touch hearts and consciences, it has the power to help bring about change, to correct injustices. In Victorian England, Charles Dickens' novels exposed the abysmal living conditions of the lower classes and the harsh treatment of children working long hours in dangerous mills and factories. He managed to convey truth so vividly that his readers could put themselves emotionally in his characters' places. By bringing those horrible conditions to the public conscience, he brought about political change: Because of his novels, the Poor Laws were repealed and new laws were created for free and compulsory education for all children.

Stories help us understand one another.
In listening to the narratives of others who have gone before us, we find we travel in company, not alone. We learn that others have traveled similar paths. We discover common threads and universal themes. As more and more people write their confessions, memoirs, and autobiographies, we see that all our stories are more alike than different. Shared stories give us community that transcends time and space.

As we know the power of stories in our lives, we learn to tell them deliberately to shape our lives and our world. By telling stories, we create our truths, our foundations, our communities, our world, and we create a future in which we can bring possibilities to fruition.

Moving Forward
In order to use stories to move forward with your life, you might want to try one or more of the following suggestions:

  • Tell the stories you live by, the stories you grew up with.
  • If you haven't already begun, try writing short pieces of the story of your life.
  • Consider writing a "timed autobiography" of your entire life. Start with a 30-minute story, a five-minute story, then a 30-second story. Notice what insights appear as you are forced to choose only the most important elements.
  • Look at the collected photographs of your life and family. Pretend to be an anthropologist from the future to see what clues and insights you can gain by keen observation. What stories do your pictures tell?
  • Try making a visual representation of your life story in a map, drawing, sculpture, collage, or painting.
  • Ask yourself about your purpose in life.
  • Consider becoming the author of your own life.

Copyright 2006 Ellen Moore. All rights reserved.
Ellen Moore, Ph.D., specializes in the art and science of happiness. Many tools are available for changing your life "for good." Some of the most accessible are Writing, Reading, Retreats, Group Support, and Mentoring/Coaching. Feel free to contact Ellen for further information and register for her free newsletter, "New Life Story Seeds" at New Life Stories.


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