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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Story Tellers

Story telling is one of those attributes which define us as humans. It is a means we use to convey our myths, our faith, and our history-- both personal and corporate, a tool for teaching, and the principal and most powerful means by which we seek to persuade others of our point of view. Storytelling is as old as humanity itself. Among families and communities in both sacred and secular settings stories have been part of the human psyche since language came into being. We even tell stories to ourselves, in the night while we sleep, and we call them dreams.


The epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest recorded story we have, older than the Old Testament, the Vedas, and the Book of the Dead, perhaps 4,000 years old. Scholars can trace its influences to Homer some 3,300 years later and no doubt inspirations circulated through every culture and period subtly spreading the ideas and beliefs of its nameless creator. Before Gutenberg and the mass-produced printed word, stories were as much a product of accretion as they were original exposition. Story tellers freely exchanged their wares, bartered them, eager to obtain a new tale or fragment they might appropriate. Embellishment was not a sin, plagiarism unknown. Distinguishing between fact and fiction a slippery bit of business, but it mattered little, the story itself was the paramount thing. Stories were currency, the telling of them a livelihood.


Great storytellers have always been celebrated and sometimes feared members of a dangerous fraternity. Before the written word Celtic Bards and Norse Skalds exchanged stories on their transits telling tales of the deeds done and feats accomplished by patron warriors and tribal leaders. Indeed, they were king makers, or at least makers of petty lords, their tales extolling the prowess of whoever paid their price. So great was their power that in both cultures they found themselves cast out from their own lands, sentenced to wander the world spreading their stories as seeds that sprouted in myths, religions and histories, mingled and woven into tapestries dense with cultural reference and hidden meaning we are still unravelling today.


The story telling tradition is still alive--part of the human DNA. Not in the published works that fill our libraries, bookstores and Kindles—though they contain millions of wonderful stories. The story telling tradition lives on in social media, on the internet, in organized forums and ad hoc virtual gatherings. The same truths can be said of these stories—whether their creators are known to us or not—they are the product of transmutation, of devious or innocent manufacture designed to influence, to convince us of the tale, cautionary or otherwise.


Why do story tellers tell their tales? The motivations are as many as the stories themselves, some arjise out of noble virtue but many do not. Vanity leads some to invent Mittyesque myths, to impress or deceive. Some true believers mistake anecdotes or third hand stories for fact—perhaps adding attributions innocent or otherwise to enhance their credibility—the better to influence those they deem misguided or wrong-headed. Governments employ entire cadres of mis-aligners to invent stories to manipulate public opinion, sow discord among their enemies, and even commercial entities use these artifices to hawk their wares and extoll their virtues.


If the hapless consumer is equipped with a healthy skepticism she or he might conduct their own ‘research’ as it is called—a feckless dive into Google that more often than not elicits a dizzying array of citations and sources that themselves require sifting and sorting to separate the chaff. Spam, scam and untruth are everywhere to the point where all is suspect and on that seemingly innocent statement hangs the delicate balance of our society. If everything is lies and tales we are lost, at sea without compass or rudder, a latter-day Odysseus with no way to find our way home to reality.


That is why it is so critically important for us to ask first and always, who tells this tale and for what reason? Behind every story there is a purpose, it is our responsibility to ask the questions it reveals. In our ideologically challenged world controversy attends every issue. We must not indulge ourselves in indifference or slide into passivity at the prospect of divining fact from fiction. We must ask and ask again, who is the teller of the tale, who stands to gain from our belief in his story?


Filmmaker Jean Luc Goddard wrote “Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” And therein is our challenge to put aside our hard wired human need to hear the story, believe in its instruction, and trust that in its simplicity we will find the truth. Our stories and those we tell are the keepers of us. Reality is complex--never mistake form for substance.

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