A Tapestry of Tales: How Storytelling Weaves Culture

Introduction

When we envision a tapestry, it is easy to see how many threads join together to create a beautiful new and cohesive fabric, pleasing to the eye—and yet—also functional and utilitarian. It has an aim and intent. It is, at once, a thing to behold and entertain, while also having a purpose –whether to cover a wall, provide insulation from the cold, or to add color and panache to the interior design of a home. It takes many different colored threads to weave a tapestry that is pleasing to the eye, and in some way, it also tells a story. A tapestry tells a tale of the people who made it, and of the people it was made for. The color, design, pattern, and style all reflect the aesthetics and tastes of a particular group of people. A tapestry tells a story.

In much the same way, our society creates a tapestry of its own, as it weaves stories together, and creates a narrative of its past, present, and future. Since the first human beings began to speak and communicate, they have told stories and crafted tales that connected them to their home and environment, and linked them together as a community. The content, form, and function of these stories throughout our history reflect the morals, attitudes, mores, tastes, and belief system of the people who told the stories, and for the people they were intended for.

From Cave to Stage

Perhaps the first stories ever “recorded” were cave paintings, also known as parietal art, which were painted drawings on cave walls or ceilings, mainly of prehistoric origin, beginning roughly 40,000 years ago (around 38,000 BCE) in Eurasia. The paintings are the earliest known examples of storytelling in the world. The exact purpose of the Paleolithic cave paintings is not known. Evidence suggests that they were not merely decorations of living areas, since the caves in which they have been found do not have signs of ongoing habitation. Some theories suggest that cave paintings may have been a form of communication, while other theories posit that they were intended for a religious or ceremonial purpose. The paintings are remarkably similar around the world, commonly depicting impressive animals. Humans mainly appear as images of hands, mostly hand stencils made by blowing pigment on a hand held to the wall. Whatever their purpose, the cave paintings were a form of storytelling and were a distinct form of communication and expression.

Since humankind first began to communicate, it is obvious that passing down stories was important to the culture. Storytelling is what connects us to our humanity. It is what links us to our past, and provides a glimpse into our future. Since human beings first walked the earth, they have told stories, before even the written word or oral language emerged. Through these cave paintings and over fires, humans have told stories as a way to shape our existence.

Our Lives As Stories

In our lives, things impact us and we experience events that may seem random or unexplainable. It is natural that we would seek to relay our story to others and try and remember the events as they occurred. Things happen to us, which are inherently the elements of a story, but as humans, we have unique perspectives, biases, and beliefs, which naturally shape how we retell that story. Unlike the other animals we share the Earth with, human beings have the ability to think and to make meaning out of the events that shape our lives. Therefore, it is understandable why we as humans would try and attach meaning and create a narrative out of seemingly unconnected and random events. These are the building blocks that make for a story. To further the tapestry metaphor, these life events are the diverse and disparate threads that must be woven together to create a cohesive and engaging tapestry of a story.

Storytellers learned early on that people like to hear stories with a beginning, middle, and an end. We seem to be drawn to stories that have characters that look like us—or at least share characteristics we can relate to. We also desire to be drawn into a story, and enjoy when a story builds up to a thrilling climax, followed by a satisfying conclusion. Often, we want to use our imaginations, but sometimes we don’t, and prefer to passively have a story told to us. Many of us enjoy being moved by a story, either emotionally, or viscerally, like in a good action film or a tender tale of humanity and redemption.

A Visceral Experience

Throughout history, storytelling has served many functions, and continues to do so today. Perhaps the most basic and straightforward purpose of storytelling is to entertain and to distract.  When we go to see a movie like The Fast and the Furious, we are not going for the purpose of being educated, enlightened, or moved. When we watch films like that, we are there to be entertained. Entertainment can be delivered in various ways, and has naturally changed over the decades and centuries. However, the fundamentals of what entertains and diverts us have relatively stayed the same, even as the mediums, technologies, and methods of delivery have evolved and matured. Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare was writing plays that entertained us through humor and laughter, and action and horror. Not a lot has changed in the centuries since. Just as we draw inspiration from Shakespeare, the Bard himself drew inspiration from the Romans and Greeks, who had entertained through comedy and tragedy over a millennium earlier.

Throughout history, we can see humor and action used to divert our attention away from the tragedies, stresses, and discomforts of our own lives. Many people go to plays or to movies to be distracted from the stresses and realities of their own lives, and prefer to “turn off their brains.” These people do not wish to be educated or enlightened, but want the visceral thrill of being made to laugh or to watch action unfold on the screen. With major advancements in CGI, audiences today are being entertained at a higher and more sophisticated degree than ever before. It is possible to go see a movie and watch intense battle scenes and car chases that are completely manipulated or created digitally, and are viscerally thrilling and used to maximize excitement. Just as watching action sequences onscreen can distract a person, so can comedy. Both can function at a deeper level as well, but at its core, action and comedy are intended to entertain and distract us. Some of us prefer our stories to do no more than function as diversion, while others seek something deeper and more meaningful. These higher level thinking attributes of storytelling are deeply embedded in our culture, and are just as important to how we receive and incorporate stories into our lives. These elements serve to do more than entertain and distract us, but provide a more integrated and lasting impact on our society.

Our Emotional Connection

One of the significant ways that storytelling serves a society is through the use of emotion and empathy to build a rapportwith an audience.  When people attend the theatre or go to a movie, some are looking to get swept away in the action. For some people, that is as simple as watching intricate CGI action sequences play across the screen. In those cases, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a lot invested emotionally in the characters or the story. For many people, action and comedy can exist untethered from the emotional lives of the characters, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, for many people, they go to see plays, read books, and watch movies so that they can learn more about themselves through exploring the emotional lives of others.

The great Greek Philosopher, Aristotle, wrote at length about the purpose of storytelling and theatre. He spoke of catharsis, where an audience would be purged of all its guilt, shame, fear, etc. by watching something awful unfold, like a Greek Tragedy on stage. When people watch a movie, for instance, they often want to be taken on a journey of emotion, in which they feel the same excitement, fear, anger, thrill, and other emotions that the characters experience onscreen. The film is therefore a tool by which an audience can live vicariously through the characters, and experience what it’s like to be terrorized by a serial killer or explore outer space or do any other number of things they may not have ever experienced, nor may never experience in their own lives. Watching a play or a movie allows an audience to feel the emotions of a character, and take a trip with that person, without ever having to experience the very real effects of that journey.

In watching a film or play, people have access to a wide variety of emotions that they may have experienced in their own lives, never experienced before, and very well may never experience even once. The beauty of storytelling is that it allows people to empathize and relate to characters who may share a similar story as our own, or experience people who look nothing like us, and may have a very different life than our own. The power of storytelling is that it creates empathy in the viewer, who finds an outlet in order to channel their emotions into the characters in a story, and allows them to feel for the characters and feel LIKE the characters. This emotional connection is what invites people into a story, and motivates them to become emotionally invested in the characters and the storyline. Perhaps greater than dazzling action sequences or transitory moments of comedy, is the ability for a story to captivate its audience through raw emotion. When an audience is invested in the emotional lives of a story’s characters, they seem to be more devoted to the story and its outcome in general.

There are two primary types of emotional connection to a story. The first is to be engaged with the lives of characters who are feeling deep emotions and experiencing nuanced feelings like we have never felt before. In this case, an audience member is moved to feel what another human being feels, even if they have never experienced such emotion in their own lives. An example of this might be a person with money and prestige moved by the plight of a poor and dejected member of society, and their struggle to overcome poverty. Through storytelling, we are able to weave stories about people who may not look like us or come from where we come from, but are still able to engender pity and empathy within the viewer. In that case, the spectator becomes so invested in the character, they feel compelled to momentarily live another’s pain, joy, heartache, love, etc. This is the very definition of empathy.

The second type of emotional investment is when we see ourselves on the screen. These are the kinds of stories that are told about people like you and me, and people we know well. We are able to see ourselves in these characters, and can easily be moved by their stories, because perhaps they are enacting our own lives, and exploring the complex range of emotions we each feel everyday. When we see ourselves onscreen, we see all our hopes and dreams, triumphs and defeats, and all the nuanced emotions that surge through our bodies everyday. When we watch stories about ourselves, we can emotionally connect to what other human beings feel that we may have felt, in order to feel not so alone and to reaffirm our own humanity. In many ways, seeing ourselves onscreen or onstage is consoling, and allows us to claim a piece of our community, and reaffirms that we are all members of the human race. Whether someone is emotionally identifying with those who look different from them, or whether they feel they are looking at themselves on stage, it is difficult to imagine a more intimate experience than becoming invested in the emotional lives of the characters who populate our stories.

Building Character Through Characters

Another significant way that storytelling is important to a society is the way in which it creates role models and characters we can identify with. As human beings, it’s important to identify with certain types of people, learn behaviors, and become socialized as individuals. Just as our friends and family influence us immeasurably, so do the characters we read in books, see on stage, or watch in the movies and on television. From our first glimpse of television and movies to the first bedtime stories we hear, we are constantly exposed to characters who have professional lives we may someday aspire to. It is not uncommon to be introduced to doctors and lawyers, firemen and police officers, and truck drivers and astronauts. When we are exposed to these professions, it’s not unusual to develop an affinity for one job or another. Again, we relate to who we relate to, and it’s often easy to see ourselves in a story, including the jobs we have, the jobs we’d like, or the jobs we left behind. Storytelling is a way to introduce people to professions, and explore those careers right from the comfort of our own home or a seat in a theater.

Along the same lines, storytelling allows us to envision ourselves as somebody else –for good or for bad. It allows us to see ourselves as who we’d like to be—perhaps as an action star, a double agent, or a dashing romantic lead. Or perhaps just someone more confident, more outspoken, or more successful at love. We are able to measure ourselves against the characters we see onscreen, and that can be a motivating factor in making real and lasting change in our lives. Perhaps we are inspired by the stories we see, and are moved to take action in our own lives. Conversely, storytelling also has a cautionary function, and can depict characters who are cruel, gruesome, evil, and despicable in many ways. These kinds of antagonists can allow us to envision what we don’t want to be, and the kinds of people to stay away from.

In creating complex and engaging characters in the stories we tell, we are creating types that fulfill our needs in our personal and professional lives. When we see two friends on screen, we can look for those traits in new friends, and cultivate them in the relationships we already have. When we see romance on screen, we can aspire to have the same romantic relationships in our own lives. Naturally, we have to be cautious and realize that the stories we see are not always realistic and may be unattainable, but nonetheless, they can serve to inspire and motivate us in our own lives. What we see is often aspirational, and we can learn a lot from the characters we’re exposed to in books, on stage, and onscreen.

Morality, Socialization, and the Education of Youth

Since the first stories were ever woven, one of the major purposes of storytelling was to educate, as well as to entertain.  Storytelling may or may not have grown out of religious rituals and ceremonies, but either way, there has always been an aspect of storytelling that was meant to enlighten and elucidate. For instance, stories have been used for centuries as a cautionary tale to remind us what dire consequences there are for various actions we take. Stories serve to enlighten and prompt us to act, for when we forget the humanity of others, we risk losing our own humanity. There are many books which fall into the genre of dystopian fiction, which serve as reminders as to what can happen when we allow dictators to rule and authoritarian regimes to rule a nation. Several of these books have been turned into movies, and include 1984,Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and A Clockwork Orange. Each of these books are cautionary tales, to remind us of the dangers of fascism – in all its many forms.

In many instances, stories are written in order to teach us morality and the difference between right and wrong. The characters often face tough moral challenges, and are forced to choose between the easy and convenient decision, and the difficult, but moral one. The book and film, To Kill a Mockingbird,is a prime example of a story that is intended to teach morality and to shape and change societal prejudices.  At the time it was written, the country was just beginning to emerge from the Jim Crow laws of the south, and the Civil Rights movement was challenging segregation and longstanding oppression. Author Harper Lee crafted the character of Atticus Finch to be an upstanding and moral southern gentleman, who would go on to defend the accused African American man, Tom Robinson, and fight racism wherever he saw it. Atticus’s children, Scout and Jem, were taught lessons about how to treat each other with kindness and empathy regardless of skin color, and we, the audience, were taught through his fine example.

A Lesson in History

Years later, Stephen Spielberg would make the haunting and arresting film, Schindler’s List, also based on a bestselling book. Through shockingly realistic depictions of concentration camps and fierce Nazi brutality, Spielberg weaves a cautionary tale for us about man’s inhumanity towards man, and the depths of depravity our brethren have sunk to. The film is intended to educate generations of people who never saw the Holocaust firsthand, and to remind us that we must “never forget” what happened there, and what could easily happen here, if we ever allowed a man like Adolf Hitler to gain power again. Like many important works of art, Schindler’s List is a story that educates us about our own history, while pulling us in with its characters and engaging story. We become emotionally invested in the characters, and are moved by their plights. While most of us may have never experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, and can only imagine the cost of such brutality, we are pulled in by the humanity of the characters, and are forced to empathize with their experience. A movie like Schindler’s List is successful on many levels, because the film manages to draw us into its story through action, good acting, an engaging plot, superb direction, masterful art direction and design, and emotional investment, while also educating us along the way.  We are taught a history lesson, a lesson in morality, and entertained all at the same time.

Storytelling can serve to educate a society about itself, and to provide a history lesson about where we all came from. We can learn invaluable things about who we once were, and be reminded of who we want to be.  Even science fiction serves the purpose of education and allows us to explore the possibilities and potential of the human condition. For example, as a cautionary tale, science fiction can warn of the dangers of technology run amok, without any thought to its moral implications. A movie like Metropolistells a harrowing tale of a future overrun by machines and the horrifying technology we have created to make our lives easier. However, if the human race is in fact evolving physically, it stands to reason that we are also evolving towards a more peaceful and moral society. When Gene Roddenberry created the original Star Trekseries, he imagined a future where humankind was equal and peace had been achieved on earth. Despite the racial turmoil going on in America during the late 1960s, Star Trekdepicted an egalitarian future, where all the races lived in harmony and had overcome such petty squabbles as skin color or gender. The story was set in the future, but many of its themes and ideas were rooted in the strife and struggles of mid-century America. Again, the show was intended as a cautionary tale, but not one as dark and hopeless as 1984or Brave New World. Star Trekprovided a hopeful and optimistic future of where we are going, or at least, what we can aspire to.

The Next Generation

Finally, storytelling is a way to teach our children, and the generations that follow us. This essay has already touched on how storytelling is used to socialize people, and introduce them to various professions, demonstrate positive and negative relationships, and to explore our wide range of emotions. It’s important for children to learn these skills, in order to be effective communicators and productive members of society. Storytelling also serves to entertain children, while also educating them about the past and the present, and allows them to imagine a brighter future—one which they can shape firsthand. Stories manage to use morality tales and parables to teach children about the atrocities that have come before them, and can guide them to make better choices in the future. Storytelling serves to inspire and give meaning to our lives, and allows us to make sense of an often chaotic and random world. When we are young, storytelling helps contextualize our lives and create a narrative not only for our own lives, but of our society as a whole. When we are able to create narratives, we are able to attach meaning to what has happened to us, and we are able to make decisions about how we want the future to be. When we are able to recognize that bad things happened as a result of poor decisions, we can minimize future bad decisions, and can take proactive steps to better our lives and the lives of those around us. Storytelling functions as a cautionary tale, an inspirational and aspirational tool, an education lesson, an entertaining diversion, and an emotional investment in people who may or may not look like us. Children are exposed to cultures they may never have seen otherwise, and our planet becomes smaller and can celebrate its diversity, rather than fear what makes us different. Just as a tapestry is woven by threads of all colors, the stories we tell are populated by diverse characters who make up the world, and who each have their own story to tell. Stories inspire us, and give meaning to our lives, and are an essential ingredient in the human experience. Without stories, our lives would be barbaric, primitive, and utterly meaningless. We need stories to tell us about who we’ve been, who we are, and who we hope to be.

Conclusion

Shakespeare’s Hamlet once said that a society passes on its values and uses stories to “..hold a mirror up to nature” to show us our reflection, however hard it may be to look. Yet, it also shows us where we came from, and to where we are heading. Storytelling is how we make meaning out of the chaos of human existence. It provides a shape, so that our own lives have a beginning, middle, and an end, and we can feel like we’ve meant something, and left our mark on the world. If each one of us could tell a piece of our life story, than we have a narrative, and suddenly, we are the protagonists in our own life story. Yet, that is what storytellers are there for. They serve to tell their own stories, and the stories of each and every one of us. This is why we create stories, and this is why we NEED storytellers. They entertain AND educate us. They are what make us human, and not savage beasts of the wild.

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