Recently, after our Winter Solstice ritual, several of us found ourselves in a warm and lively conversation about the power that stories have had on us. For most of us there, they were stories that came to us through reading, and we each had favorite books and favorite authors whom we remember first taking us into other worlds, other lives and thereby waking up something in us. That something we called by different names–a sense of belonging, a sense of hope, the ability to reflect and make meaning of things.
Mary Oliver, in her recent book of essays entitled Upstream, says of the power of books and reading:
The second world — the world of literature — offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it. I relaxed in it. I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything — other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.
In our conversation that night, we also acknowledge the power of story found in movies, each recounting moments in movies and in books where we found ourselves in another world where we simply couldn’t (or more likely didn’t want to) return to the normal space and time of our lives. As I listened to each of us in that conversation, I heard us affirming over and over again these qualities–belonging, hope and memory–the power of stories to bring us into a real and life-changing experience of those qualities, each experiences in themselves.
In his book, A Dance with Dragons, a character of George R. R. Martin observes:
A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.
Martin’s character is more like those of us sitting around the table that night–fond of reading. Not everyone is fond of reading, but I don’t know a human being who can’t be taken into the magic of transformation through the right story. Martin’s sentiment expresses how by entering into stories, we each really experience entering into and finding more than just this one life. We call that experience, otherwise, belonging and community. Oliver in her quotation expresses what we might otherwise call hope. I have this sense that on some level every story that speaks in a compelling way to us functions as memory for us–memory of who we have been, of who we are, and of who we are yet to be.
Community, hope and memory. Community empowers us to be who we are. Take community away, and we lose our humanity.
Hope empowers us to be who we are. Take hope away, and we lose our humanity.
Memory empowers us to be who we are. Take memory away, and we lose our humanity.
If you have favorite books or favorite movies, consider how they have extended your sense of community; how they have enabled you to experience hope; how they have invoked and created memory for you. Stories: they are the wisdom of the ages.