Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Power of Stories

The power of stories has built our world. They are told to mature audiences by comedians, in front of students by teachers, to campers on summer break by campfires, in song by musicians, to children by their parents just before bed, and even in the womb when the child in his or her watery bubble hears sounds from the outside world for the first time. They go back a long way to the time when humans were first able to take their imagination to places not yet conceived from the raw material of their daily lives. Nations and their cities were built on them and though the tales may have been woven from a just a little truth and a lot of embellishment, they've had the power to inspire their hearers in turn to create their own legends and civilizations and so we have as our inheritance a very large historical quilt that tells us a lot about who we are in the good we have done as well as in the bad.

One of the best and most influential of them is found in the story of Jesus and in the later books of the New Testament that went on to flesh out the original salvation theme. The Gospels themselves grew out from the volumes of Hebrew writings and took much of their inspiration from them as their writers made them relevant to the first century setting in which they lived. They were made meaningful not just to the nucleus of Jewry which had known many lesser saviors in the past and the promises of greater ones to come but also to other tribes and peoples with different but no less inspiring icons of their own. These were woven into the original story by their tellers and were gathered together into what we might refer to as more or less fixed orthodox belief. Many of their truths however were not only based on ideas that came from the older Sumerian, Indian, Egyptian and Babylonian stories. They also reflected some of the character of the companion religions that paralleled first century Christianity. I've always felt that if something of quality is created, it has the power to endure the changes that occur even after its time has long passed. That's the reason why I believe many bits and pieces in the Gospel story are also found in the stories of Osiris, Mithras, Hercules, Dionysus, Krishna, etc. The older ones live on in the newer and so it is that although the former ones becomes a bit tattered and worn after a time, their essence remains, though slightly changed to inspire the next generation. Conflicts develop though when the established order is threatened by the desire of some to modify it and the latter is born painfully from the former like a mother that regrets her pregnancy in the hours just preceding the moment of the delivery. Death accompanies change as the old order in its desire to dominate resorts to violent authoritarianism through fear in order to stay in power and though it may in the short term find success in repressing the newer idea, it eventually and inevitably must yield to it. Unfortunately, many die in that repression.

We humans are not always enthusiastic about change because we often like what we've become accustomed to and whether it's from want, suffering or just plain boredom we brace ourselves for it and derive courage to face it from the great stories we create and the heroes that live and breath within them. Although we have always been more or less the same in our wants, desires and values throughout time, we've had the need to continually change the legends and myths which reflect them just to give a little new life to the old and to revitalize our long-cherished ideals. Change being the nature of existence, we are as much actors as audience in watching and experiencing the passage of time. Our stories tie us to our past as well as to the unknowns of the future and we feel a multidimensional connection to others in their continued telling. We throw away our fear and cast our lots to whatever may happen because we know that we are part of the greatest story ever which is ourselves.

artwork by Sir John Everett Millais 'Boyhood of Raleigh'

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