SunLit Story Time

Making the World a Better Place One Story at a Time

The Power of Story

Ancient Cave Paintings in Patagonia — photo by Buenaventuramariano

Ancient Cave Paintings in Patagonia — photo by Buenaventuramariano

No one knows when the first story was told, but in my mind, it went like this:

One million years ago, a woman wearing clothes made from animal skins smiled with relief upon seeing her mate safely return from a three-day absence. His hunt was successful, and she prepared the meat for the fire.

After checking on the baby, she walked to where her mate rested on a rock. She gestured wildly, and his face grew confused.

She pointed at his chest and then waved her hand twice in the direction he had gone. Then she pointed to herself, the baby, and the cave that was their home. The man nodded to indicate he understood.

The woman then threw her hand toward the opposite direction, far away. With two wiggling fingers pointed downward, she signaled that something had approached their camp.

Then she got on her knees, hunched her back, and growled like a wolf. She swiped at his legs as if her hands were paws, scratching him. He drew away, his eyebrows lifted, his eyes wild with fear.

She crawled to where their son lay napping and growled at the six-month old. She swiped at the baby, and the man stood, alarmed, his hands bunched into fists.

The woman then stood and picked up several rocks. She shouted and threw a rock at where the wolf had stood, and then indicated with her hands that she had successfully beaten the wolf away from their son. Her mate’s chest heaved with excitement. She threw more rocks as the wolf fled from the baby’s side, and then she stood tall at the edge of camp, proud that she had fought back the wolf.

The man spent the next few hours gathering a huge pile of rocks of the perfect size for throwing at animals, and from then on, he never left camp for longer than a day.

That’s the first story ever told. Before I wrote this paper, the story existed only in my mind, but now it exists in yours.

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Humans developed written languages during the third millennium B.C., but empirical evidence makes it clear that we told each other stories long before that. 1/

Why? Why are humans compelled to tell their own stories and to hear the stories of others?

Simple. We tell stories because we can. Telling stories is crucial to our ability to teach, relate, and inspire. Furthermore, research has shown than when people engage with a story, it enhances their empathy. 1/

Let’s examine the word empathy more closely.

According to Merriam-Webster, empathy, a noun, is the “action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.” 1/

When we hear or read a story, we leave ourselves to enter another character’s world. As if we were the character, we experience her hopes, dreams, struggles, failures, and successes. We feel her emotions. Researchers refer to this process of leaving ourselves and entering another world as being transported. 1/

Here’s how to use the Power of Story in your life. If you want to experience the struggles of poor whites in Middle America, read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. If you want to understand life as an immigrant in the US, read The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Enríquez.

Storytelling is critical to the development of a person’s empathy, that ability to relate to the struggles and emotions of others. This makes us better people. Without empathy, humans are selfish, seeking only their own personal gain, resorting to force and power for their fulfillment instead of seeking fulfillment from the benefit of others.

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At SunLit Story Time, we believe in the Power of Story. Our mission is best captured by our tagline: Making the World a Better Place One Story at a Time. We want to tell a million stories. We’re at three thousand and counting. You can help.

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1/ See our full-length paper on the Power of Story - Full page for corroborating research and reference footnotes.