Humans are story beings. Our imagination and our ability to tell each other stories is at the very heart of what makes us human. It is a magical and powerful ability and one which we need to treat with care and respect.

Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence. That it’s common to every known culture. That it involves a symbiotic exchange between teller and listener — an exchange we learn to negotiate in infancy. Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature.

Since time began, stories have brought us together and they have driven us apart. Stories allow us to collectively dream of the future but they also take us out of the present. Stories encourage us to connect deeply with each other and with the planet we call home. They also allow us separate ourselves from the Earth and abuse it to the point of our own destruction.

We can enter our imaginations and fly above our own lives. Looking down like Greek Gods at the human world, we see a story where the clock is ticking and the stakes are high. Will the human race make it in time, or will we be the authors of our own end? The story is tense and absorbing but we are not just outsiders looking in, we are the protagonists, the heroes and the villains. We are the authors of our own story.

As many people acknowledge, we are at a tipping point. We are in the midst of a climate crisis, biodiversity destruction and social fragmentation. Systems that have existed for generations are being pulled apart and reexamined. The cold hard facts of history are full of cracks and we are ready to fill them with the human stories that make them complicated and alive with pain and joy. Inequality is everywhere, we all have dirty hands and each of us must struggle to raise them and take responsibility for our part. We are beginning to imagine, create and demand a new reality. As philosopher Joanna Macy says, ‘The Great Turning has begun.’

The stories we tell each other and ourselves have a huge impact on our internal and external world. Our mental health as individuals and as a society can easily be pushed around by story. We are surrounded by advertising that sells a corporate dream, telling us we will be happy when we have this, that or the other, work hard, shop hard. Our news reports are often packaged in stories, some even have dramatic music to take us on a fear filled dramatic journey filled with baddies and goodies. Social media prompts us to ‘share your story’.  As Laurence Scott says in his book, Picnic Comma Lighting, ‘ we are losing our ability to tell the difference between story and fact.’ [1]

Stories are our gift and our burden it is very important that we recoginise what they are and the the power they hold. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book, Sapiens, ‘once a group exceeds 120 people we need stories to bind us together.’[2] Every religion in the world has a binding story, or collection of stories at its root. Governments, national identity, political and social movements are all built around stories. It is a powerful mechanism. A tool which can be incredibly helpful and deeply harmful.

The question is what stories do we want to tell? We have agency in this, we have choice. Each voice, each retelling adds to the power of a story. A story needs to be told, and retold, if it is to live and grow. What is story in our time? How can we use our unique tool to have a healthy and honest relationship with our past? How can we use it to bring us together as a species in the present? How can story help us to collectively imagine a future where we make it through, where future generations live happy and content lives on a thriving, healthy planet? Can story help us find our future, can story help us find ourselves?

[1] Scott, L. (2018) Picnic Comma Lightning, W.W. Norton Company

[2] Harari, Y. -N. (2014) Sapiens; A Brief History of Humankind, Harvill Secker