The Power of Story

The forest is bathed in moon­light, thick with the scent of pine, and alive with the crack­le and ketchup smell of oak ablaze in a cir­cle of stones, the sparks fly­ing up into the night sky to cre­ate tem­po­rary con­stel­la­tions. 

Mis­ter Fox takes an apple, runs a stick through its core, and holds it out over the flames. “Once upon a time” he cre­ative­ly begins, “Zeus, Jeho­vah, and Odin walked into a bar. “Why the long faces?” asks the bar­tender, a tall skin­ny fel­low with white hair and an Irish brogue. Zeus orders a bot­tle of Ouzo and says “Human freak­ing beings. They stole my most pow­er­ful mag­ic — the abil­i­ty to make fire.”  “Oy, says Jeho­vah, you think you’ve got prob­lems,” as he ordered a bot­tle of wine. “To steal fire, they need­ed to know what fire was. And they know THAT because they stole my most pow­er­ful mag­ic: knowl­edge.” Odin orders a beer and stays qui­et. The bar­tender leans in and says “Uh, Odin, this is the part of the sto­ry where you one-up them and deliv­er the punch­line. Odin? Odin?” Mis­ter Fox gives us a nod, bites the apple, and pro­duces a very cold beer he has some­how con­jured out of noth­ing, and offers us a sip….

Prometheus stole fire from the Gods. Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowl­edge. But in Norse mythol­o­gy, it was the Mead of Poet­ry — the abil­i­ty to tell sto­ries — which human­i­ty dis­tilled from a God’s stolen gift.

The Norse chose wise­ly.

Sto­ries are the invis­i­ble archi­tec­ture of the human world. Let me repeat that: Sto­ries are the invis­i­ble archi­tec­ture of the human world. Until you take the red pill and realise this sim­ple fact, Neo, you will nev­er be tru­ly free.

Most of the sto­ries that gov­ern our lives are so ancient, so burned-in to our psy­che, that we for­get they are sto­ries.

The days of the week are sto­ries — mon­keys are not hap­py on Fri­day, Giraffes don’t get the Mon­day blues. All of us accept, unques­tion­ing, the sto­ry that there are 7 days in a week and their cycle resets on Sun­day. And that sto­ry frames the way we think about an entire day, and even our sense of the pos­si­ble. What seems pos­si­ble on a Tues­day may be very dif­fer­ent from what seems pos­si­ble on a Sun­day.

But there are big­ger sto­ries that also shape our lives — the sto­ry of jus­tice, of equal­i­ty, the sto­ry of mon­ey, of cor­po­ra­tions, the sto­ry of Democ­ra­cy or the 6 major reli­gions. All of the­se sto­ries are what Yuval Har­rari calls “inter-sub­jec­tive imag­ined orders.” They have no phys­i­cal or bio­log­i­cal truth — they were all cre­at­ed and agreed by human beings and only exist as long as human beings keep believ­ing in them.

They are mytholo­gies: sto­ries kept alive by retelling, made stronger by rit­u­als, ampli­fied through social proof.

I’ve recent­ly read “Sapi­ens” — Harrari’s sweep­ing his­to­ry of the species, which might have been sub­ti­tled “A his­to­ry of sto­ry.” He cov­ers some of the same ground that Jonathan Haidt went over in The Right­eous Mind, but brings it to life in new ways. What made humans the most suc­cess­ful species on the plan­et was our abil­i­ty to uni­fy and organ­ise small groups around sto­ries that we made up to define a com­mon pur­pose — the sto­ry of the hunters of the tribe, the sto­ry of the gods of the sea­sons that helped us grow food, the sto­ry of a pyra­mid to pro­tect the pharaoh’s soul, the sto­ry of a nation, in which each of us is a char­ac­ter, in which each of us plays a role.

His retelling of the inven­tion of the lim­it­ed com­pa­ny in 19th cen­tu­ry is bril­liant. It was sor­cery — a pow­er­ful magi­cian, in this case, a lawyer, utters a mag­ic spell with pow­er­ful words he writes on paper and cre­ates an enti­ty from thin air and says this enti­ty is going to bor­row mon­ey. It’s not ME bor­row­ing mon­ey, it’s this thing I just cre­at­ed. And if it fails, I’m not liable for its debts, because it wasn’t me that bor­rowed the mon­ey — it’s this thing I call a com­pa­ny. How good a trick was that? Enough peo­ple believed that sor­cer­er to breathe life into that being. And to this day, cor­po­ra­tions exist because we accept the mag­i­cal pow­er of law that says they do, and that sto­ry has been rein­forced over and over by retellings that make it stronger, that give it a per­ma­nence. Yet a cor­po­ra­tion doesn’t exist. You can’t touch it. It exists nowhere but in our sto­ry­telling brains, just as every spire in the Man­hat­tan sky­line was once just a sto­ry on paper, just as the death of a mastodon was noth­ing but a sto­ry told around a fire in a cave that turned into a plan.

When I retell the sto­ry of Rosa Parks sit­ting in the front of a bus and so set­ting off a chain of events that cre­at­ed the civil rights act, I rein­force the sto­ry of pro­gress, the sto­ry of equal­i­ty, the sto­ry of jus­tice, the sto­ry of the long arc of his­to­ry. Every time a wom­an goes to the polls and tells some­one they’re vot­ing because they remem­ber the scorn heaped upon Eliz­a­beth Cady Stan­ton and her fel­low suf­fer­agettes, they par­tic­i­pate in a rit­u­al which rein­forces the sto­ry of democ­ra­cy.

Sto­ries are the oper­at­ing sys­tem of the human mind. They are the oper­at­ing sys­tem of civil­i­sa­tion. And here’s some good news: they can be hacked.

When Kumi Naidoo was a young stu­dent activist fight­ing again­st Apartheid, he was part of a 100-year-long sto­ry of resis­tance to South Africa’s sys­tem­ized dis­crim­i­na­tion.  He was told his cause was just, but it was hope­less. South Africa in those days had no demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem by which dis­sent could be open­ly expressed, no means of open­ly organ­is­ing. The gov­ern­ment com­mand­ed the largest mil­i­tary force on the African con­ti­nent. South Africa was a wealthy and sta­ble eco­nom­ic part­ner — no for­eign gov­ern­ment was going to inter­fere in their domes­tic poli­cies at the expense of bil­lions in trade.

But in the space of Kumi’s life­time, that sto­ry changed. It was hacked not just by Steven Biko and Nel­son Man­del­la and Desmond Tutu, but by Kumi’s white high school teacher, peer­ing from out her door to make sure no police or neigh­bors were watch­ing as she allowed a dis­si­dent stu­dent group to meet in her home. It was hacked by peo­ple in the west who start­ed show­ing up at South African embassies to protest. It was hacked by indi­vid­u­als who joined the boy­cott on South African goods. And at some point, some mag­i­cal point that every activist longs for, some­thing changed: enough peo­ple came to believe that change was pos­si­ble, that change BECAME pos­si­ble. That’s the sto­ry of activism. As Bob Hunter once said, “big change looks impos­si­ble when you start, and inevitable when you fin­ish.”

It’s because big change looks inevitable in hind­sight that we for­get the courage it once took to believe in it. To act for it. As we look back we think how prim­i­tive that any­one would for­bid wom­en from work­ing or vot­ing or seg­re­gate drink­ing foun­tains by the colour of someone’s skin or say with a straight face “all men are cre­at­ed equal” while exclud­ing half the human race. Sure­ly those cus­toms would have erod­ed even­tu­al­ly and we would arrive in this enlight­ened time as sure­ly as the sun ris­es and sets? No— change hap­pens in soci­ety when a soci­ety wrestles with a con­tra­dic­tion, a clash of sto­ries. How can we both believe that God cre­at­ed all men equal and yet also believe that African slaves are infe­ri­or? It’s then we enter the cul­tur­al thun­der­dome. Two sto­ries enter, one sto­ry leaves. FIGHT!

Kumi’s sto­ry has always given Mis­ter Fox hope. As we look out across the vast expanse of threats to human exis­tence today — from cli­mate change to nuclear war to an eco­nom­ic sys­tem that’s hun­gry enough to con­sume four times the Earth’s capac­i­ty … change seems impos­si­ble. And yet the moral of the sto­ry of activism is that noth­ing is impos­si­ble, and that indi­vid­u­al acts of courage, no mat­ter how fool­hardy and naive they may seem in the face of cer­tain defeat, can hack the sto­ry of the impos­si­ble into the sto­ry of the inevitable.

Want to learn more about the pow­er of sto­ry? This one day work­shop is an adven­ture in the­o­ry and prac­tice for change mak­ers who want to tell a bet­ter sto­ry, and sto­ry­tellers who want to change the world.

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