I’ve always loved libraries. More specifically, I’ve always loved books. Though I was a rule-follower in school, I remember being willing to risk getting in trouble and sneaking into my desk whatever book I was currently engrossed in, and reading it when certain subjects weren’t holding my interest. I could never get enough.
Reading, fiction stories particularly, is more than just a nice past time. It’s good for you, too. Among other things, it helps develop your sense of empathy. Just six minutes of reading eases stress up to 68%, making it the cheapest therapy on the market. It can cause you to sleep better, have healthier relationships, improve your memory, expand your vocabulary and open your mind to people different than you.
At first, this ability to tell and enjoy stories seems simply like a nice perk to being human. But scientists will tell you, that storytelling actually serves a biological purpose, that telling stories is a way of preserving the social history, of communicating meaningful lessons and creating a sense of morality among it’s listeners. And all of those things actually contribute to the evolutionary success of humanity.
Storytelling understood this way, they’ll tell you, contributes to the survival of a population.
But I think it’s more than that. Because we don’t just tell stories to learn something and to make sure the human species doesn’t disappear. We tell stories to remember. To laugh. To feel. To escape. To cry. To relate. We tell stories because we believe in the power of the story itself. Not just in what it can do for us, but what it says about our very selves.
Our collective stories remind us of how fragile we all really are, and also how resilient.
It’s why gathering around a table of food with good friends and remembering your best moments together, while sharing your personal deficits brings healing—but also hope.
It’s why at weddings we raise our glasses and toast the people whose individual stories are being forged into one, speaking of the potential before them, wrapped in both the better and worse, the sickness and health, till death do them part.
It’s why at funerals we gather the mourning together, drawing from our shared experiences with the loved one no longer with us—in hopes of preserving their memory and infusing life and meaning to our pain.
It’s why we make photo albums of family vacations.
It’s why we put our kids to bed and then spend time talking through their latest antics with our spouse on the couch.
It’s why we remember the anniversary of days like 9/11. Because the stories of the people—of the names and the faces, of the families and the loss—remind us more is on the line then preservation of the human species. Stories about unlikely heroes and ordinary people are an exercise in preserving the human spirit.
Science tells us the more we recall something—the more we tell and retell our stories—the deeper and more entrenched our neural pathways become. We are engraining in our mind the memories of what happened. Not necessarily getting all the details right, not even necessarily the accurate sequence of events, but that isn’t the point anyway. The point is, from the recollection of our experiences we are drawing significance and extracting insight.
As author, Jonathan Gottschall, of The Storytelling Animal says, “the human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story.”
Our stories have power. But it’s the retelling of our stories that give us purpose.
And that’s why I’ll share with my kids my own childhood stories of missteps and adventures and watch their eyes widen in wonder as they realize who they are is very much tied to who I have been, a history they were born into and only learn in our divulging it to them.
It’s why I’ll gather with friends again and again amid clutter and dust bunnies and sinks full of dishes and we’ll recall our younger and more well-rested selves, and marvel that our stories have allowed us to journey through some of life’s greatest joys and heartbreaks with one another one step at a time, one stumble at a time and occasionally, one limp at a time.
It’s why I’ll sit across the table from my husband, sometimes at a restaurant with a good glass of wine, and lit candle in the center, and other times amid yesterday’s crumbs and a sticky placemat, and we’ll tell our personal love story to each other—not because we don’t already know it, but because in the retelling is the reliving, and in the reliving is the resurrection and reviving of shared love.
We tell stories not simply to preserve our species. We tell stories to preserve our souls. For our health and our happiness. For our sanity and our spirits. To laugh more. And sometimes to cry, simply because we know it has to be done.
We tell stories because we were born into a grand one, and commissioned to live in the midst of one. And because stories give us meaning and there might be nothing else we need more as a species, than a sense of meaning.
So today, tonight, tomorrow, look for the chance to tell a story—be it silly, sentimental or significant—to your kids, to your spouse to your friends. To remember…
We are stronger than we think.
We are more fragile than we imagine.
We are more connected than we thought possible.
We are infused with more purpose than we think we are worthy of.
Because more is on the line than a memory. The empowerment and the resilience of the human spirit is on the line. But we’ll only ever experience it if we tell our stories, listen to our stories and live our stories. Starting now.