Why Do We Listen to Stories?

By Celia Coates

This is a new version of an old article.
Then (in 1990) – I was interested in the use of stories in psychotherapy.
Now – I’m interested in combining the power of stories with the power of science as we explore What Is Needed Now.

We need to use both ways of knowing – objective research using the scientific method and subjective discoveries found through personal experience. Both produce evidence about what is real and valuable. Future posts will explore these ideas further.
But for now, here’s my backstory about the power of stories:

For thousands of years we’ve learned by listening to stories. In tribal or nomadic societies that did not have a written language, essential knowledge was passed along in stories. Also, most religious traditions have used them for teaching core beliefs. Jesus, for example, used parables, and the Sufis conveyed spiritual wisdom through their teaching tales. Sufi author Idries Shah wrote,
“Most fables contain at least some truth, and they often enable people to absorb ideas which the ordinary patterns of their thinking would prevent them from digesting.”
In fact, there  is a Sufi belief that a story can communicate at seven different levels, reaching each person at their level of emotional and spiritual development. Stories can inform both the rational and the emotional mind by providing a surface meaning that speaks to everyone and a more subtle meaning that works separately on aspects of the inner self

The therapeutic hour with a depressed man who had trouble loving and being loved had been passing in a dry, unproductive way when I decided to tell the beginning of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen:
Once upon a time there was a very, very wicked demon who loved breaking things and hurting people. One day he crafted a mirror he was terribly proud of because whenever someone looked in it, all that was beautiful became ugly and twisted, and all that was evil looked wonderful. In the mirror the most beautiful landscape looked like boiled spinach, and the loveliest people looked hideous.

One day, as the demon was flying around the skies with his mirror, something even more awful happened – the mirror slipped from his hands and crashed to earth, shattering into thousands and thousands of pieces, each fragment no bigger than a grain of sand. Each tiny piece could do what the whole mirror had done. The glass splinters whirled around the world every which way, and when one landed in a person’s eye, it stuck there. Then all the good they could see became bad, and all the bad became good. When a tiny piece of mirror got in someone’s heart, there was even more terrible harm done because the heart grew cold, as cold as ice. Then the demon laughed until his sides ached.”

The story made immediate sense to my client, reaching through his immobilizing rationality to his feelings. His depression had made life look like boiled spinach. But it was the image of the heart-freezing sliver of glass that opened him to new life: he saw his own dilemma mirrored in the story.

This is what good stories do. Not only do they entertain, they can reflect our human struggles. Through them we can learn something about who we are and how we live. Stories provide characters, situations, problems and possible solutions for us to “see” and identify with. The man with the frozen heart had an experience of connectedness, of ”That is me”, in hearing the beginning of The Snow Queen.

A good story lasts because people want to hear it again and again, and people want to hear a story again because it touches them. The power of stories to move people lies in their ability to connect the individual to the universal, whether they are the large stories of gods and heroes in myths, the lesser stories in folk and fairy tales, the cautionary stories in fables, or the history-bearing stories in legends and sagas. Hearing a great story, we can have the sense of  “There is more than me.” We are touched by the cosmos.

The connection between the individual and the universal happens in another way too. Joseph Campbell, whose books and television series in the 1980s created a renaissance in the use and understanding of myths, wrote that they reveal, “the whole spectacle and oneself.” Seeing the whole spectacle and knowing the connectedness of all things isn’t a return to a primitive way of thinking, it is profound wisdom. This is the stuff of stories.

In 1981 Morris Berman, a cultural historian, wrote a wonderful book (THE RE-ENCHANTMENT OF THE WORLD) proclaiming that the days of being tightly limited to facts, logic, and objective observation were over. He said then that a change was occurring that had to do with creativity and community, with mystery and meaning. It had to do with turning away from the narrow abstractness of the standard scientific world-view and turning towards the inclusion of the non-material, subjective elements of existence.  We are still working on that change now, 25 years later.

A pivotal science of our day – quantum physics – has changed our world view. We no longer think –  as classical physics taught, – that everything would eventually be explained through the process of  careful, detailed studies of matter and motion. Before the Scientific Revolution we did not stand apart from the dance of the universe, but with the physics that originated in the 17th century we stopped being participants and became observers of the world around us. With the separation of observer from what was observed we came to exist in a material universe that we believed was quantifiable and could be known completely through logic and reason. The whole became merely the sum of its measured parts. Intolerance developed for all that was considered “irrational” and we lost touch with our hearts, with intuition and mystery, and with our place in the natural world.  This view of reality became the zeitgeist, the shared view of modern Western societies. In a one-sided pursuit of the factual we diminished the non-material aspects of life.

As our view of what is “real” changes, what and how we teach must also change. We must re-include dimensions of existence that we had to set aside during the centuries in which we freed ourselves from superstition and ignorance. Now, I believe, we need a full understanding of the multidimensional nature of reality so that we can live whole lives and support a healthy world. We need both ways of knowing: the objective way of scientific research and the subjective way of narratives about human experience.

Why do we listen to stories?  Because they can help us to understand life and the extraordinary nature of the world around us.

This new version of an old article was originally published in the January/February 1990 issue of COMMON BOUNDARY Magazine as “The Re-enchantment of Psychotherapy”.

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