By Shaili Shah
There is something mysterious about stories. But they are not like puzzles or problems to be solved or cracked like a code. You cannot open a story up like a cadaver and identify its heart or its nourishment or its disease. If you try to open them up like boxes and point to their essential meaning, they will always elude you.
I think it’s the way they make impressions on us, the way they leave their mark (or don’t—sometimes stories are forgotten or never told). Our stories inform our way of being in the world. What stories instruct us, which ones do we come back to time and again? Which ones to we let drop by the wayside? “Our stories give shape to our inchoate, disparate, fleeting impressions of everyday life. They bring together the past and the future into the present to provide us with structures for working towards our goals. They give us a sense of identity,” says Philippa Perry in her book How to Stay Sane. “We are primed to use stories. Part of our survival as a species depended upon listening to the stories of our tribal elders as they shared parables and passed down their experience and the wisdom of those who went before…” Stories give us ways to understand what we experience and why we’re experiencing it, helping us make sense of the world.
Stories also help us make connections between things and people and events. And making connections is basically the process of learning. Maybe education is learning what our story is and knowing when to revise or replace it–making good connections and undoing the bad ones…
Stories educate us and remind us that any kind of learning appeals to something else—an element of persuasion. Many teachers think of teaching as storytelling or as performance. And that’s because, for the learner (and I’m including teachers as learners), we have to believe that this is something we want or need to learn, that there is something at stake. Or at least we have to have a value or reason that makes us open and receptive to learning it.
You could say that stories have a power over our imaginations–they enthrall us and pull us to certain ideas and actions. They allow us to enter into the world and minds of others and have empathy. They are what we tell ourselves whether we’re happy or unhappy, are lost or have a strong sense of direction in life, struggling or flourishing.
We tell stories about everything, but not all of our stories are helpful or profound or pragmatic or accepted. Stories can transform us, can give old subjects new life. We can make interpretations, or tell stories about stories, that give an experience meaning, because that is what we crave beyond all things once the most immediate of needs (food, water, shelter, human connection) are met. We like to believe our lives matter, that the universe might be an accident but a happy one, and for that we tell stories.
Even the way stories work on us is strange. In older times, they circulated in the different ancient cultures slowly, like the erosion of rocks and the build up and movement of sand in the oceans and lakes that kept people so distanced by physical space. Now stories can flood internet space instantaneously, and they can still be kept hidden through silence and erasure, hidden by the murkiness and depth of this new type of space. Often it’s difficult to foresee what stories will gain a momentum or a following.
Sometimes stories collect in our memories, always kind of in flux and in mutation. They might be remembered with vividness, a striking clarity illuminating the way we believe things are because they gradually became a part of our inner landscape before we remember what the initial story was that made us believe it. Sometimes stories surprise us like gifts or creep up on us like nightmares. They reveal themselves to us in the most subtle ways, in the smallest details we learn about a distant relative’s life or about a person from a faraway country that we’ve only heard about in the news or online.
Here is the thing about education: often you don’t know what you don’t know. We come to class expecting to learn perhaps two things; we leave that class not having learned those two things at all but (sometimes one, sometimes five) completely different, unexpected things. When the story emerges, we’re not always sure what we’re getting.
But the most empowering thing for me is that stories can transform a life or many lives. They conceal the underlying hope or the belief in the world and that a better world is possible if we just look at the stories we hear or tell and use them. Especially in a world with so much inequality related to issues of race, class, and gender. Stories can allow us to enter into those worlds we’ve forgotten or ignored. Maybe we have to remember the old ones, or maybe we have to create new ones entirely. For me, it’s a reminder to keep thinking about stories and their power, how I learn so much about the world from stories, how I have to learn to be discerning as to what stories I let change my life. For me, education matters because it means the possibility that we can create new and better stories, for both ourselves and others. And when we find something that matters to us and gives meaning to our lives, the impulse is deeply rooted in what it means to be human—keep going; tell them stories.