Why Story Matters: The Transformative Power of Telling the Truth
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. While our ancestors grunted, cooed, and hissed, it was not until around fifty thousand years ago that humans gained full linguistic ability and developed, for the first time, the power of words. Words made us authentically human; we alone in creation explain ourselves to ourselves, articulate insight, have thoughts about feelings, and awaken – deliberately — from animal habit. We alone use story to situate ourselves in the universe, transmit wisdom, and give meaning to experience. Without words, we could not create systems of moral conduct, right and wrong, justice and fairness. We would lack a medium for telling the truth to set ourselves free. Every liberation movement in history began with rewriting the story of oppression, editing the narrative of the status quo, redefining our terms and our plot lines, the grammar of what we think possible. That’s why story is an evolutionary tool and a path toward creating a new world vision.
But how do we change the story of suffering? How do we learn to tell the truth? Where does our life myth arise from, exactly, and how does it help us in our survival. How do we choose which character to play in this great human drama? Hero or villain, teacher or Don Juan, miser or saint? The role we decide on defines the story and the story, in turn, is shaped by the role. Does this character –this star of our personal life myth – lead us toward awakening? Does the story we’re living make room for passion, spirit, and genius – the potential we are born to embody – or do we feel cramped, stifled, and neglected, shrunk-to-fit in a too small existence? Till we question the nature of our story, we cannot truly know ourselves nor discover our true identity, the eternal power under the skin of superficial biography. Waking up to the fact that we are not our story changes a seeker’s life completely. We become the authors of our own lives rather their unwitting victims. Story can then serve its sacred function as a tool for enlightenment. We’re free to be born again and again in a story without beginning or end. In this freedom, we discover a life we never imagined possible, and a language rich and brilliant enough to alter the future of our race.
Mark Matousek is the author of two bestselling memoirs, “Sex Death Enlightenment” and “The Boy He Left Behind,” as well as “When You’re Falling, Dive,” “Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good,” and “Writing Like a House on Fire.” A past editor at Interview, O: The Oprah Magazine, and contributing editor at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and other publications, he is the Creative Director of V-Men, an organization for ending violence against women and girls. Mark teaches writing workshops around the country and makes his home in New York City.
“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” – Barry Lopez, in “Crow and