Of all the species on Earth, humans have a unique ability when it comes to communication. We have the gift of stringing together words and phrases into complex ideas that eventually become stories. And we’ve used stories throughout our history as a way to educate, inspire, entertain, and yes, even save lives. The problem, as I see it, is that society can easily undermine the importance of stories and those whose chosen profession is to create them. If you’re willing to join me on a journey of storytelling, I hope to remind you of the dire importance of storytellers.
Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist/psychoanalyst, and Joseph Campbell, the famous American literature professor known to writers for his Hero’s Journey story wheel, both recognized that a conflict arises as we try to reconcile two types of thinking in our brains: concrete vs. abstract.
Concrete thinking is about the physical world around you. The visible world. Abstract thinking is about the world that can’t be seen. As we vacillate between these two forms of thinking, we don’t always know how to reconcile the two. This duality can have negative effects on our thought life (you ever lay in bed, unable to go to sleep because you’re thinking about death?) Creative thinkers (i.e. artists) are able to bridge these two disparate forms of thinking by creating ART. So while thinking about death is abstract, watching Flatliners (the good one starring Kiefer Sutherland) is a concrete exploration of that topic. And while thinking about Virgin Love is abstract, watching a production of Romeo and Juliet takes that abstract thought and makes it concrete.
Artists have been doing this for millennia. Cave paintings, though their origins and purposes may not be clear, were a way for the “artist” to take the abstract thoughts they were having about animals or other subject matter, and make them concrete by drawing them on the cave walls. As stories have evolved and become more complex, their purposes have evolved as well. Instead of simple “doodles” on a cave wall, we now tell stories to convey grand sagas of adventure (Star Wars, The Matrix), historical events that should not be forgotten (Schindler’s List, Selma), sweeping love stories (West Side Story, Titanic), raucous comedies (The Hangover, Friday), and the list goes on. And those are just movie examples. We also see story conveyed through television, music, visual art, spoken word poetry, novels, and dance.
The danger is relegating art to “a way to decorate the house”, “a nice way of escaping”, or worse, “frivolous entertainment”. May I remind you that ARTISTS, not POLITICIANS, are the agents of change in this world. For proof just look to these examples:
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), one of the best-selling novels of the 19th century, is credited with fueling the abolitionist cause in the 1850s and contributing to the start of the Civil War. It may not be the first or only domino in a chain of events leading to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, but it is an important one and a novel that can still be looked back on as a way to understand the culture of the day.
War Games (1983), starring Matthew Broderick, and the nuclear apocalypse TV Movie The Day After (1983), starring Jason Robards, both contributed to the de-escalation of Cold War tensions between the US and USSR in the early 1980s. President Reagan, after watching The Day After, wrote this in his journal: “It’s very effective and left me greatly depressed… My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and see there is never a nuclear war.” Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, the head of the Soviet armed forces wrote: “The danger which is shown in the film really exists.” Again, not the only domino, but arguably a critical one.
Ellen Degeneres took a huge risk in coming out on her TV show Ellen in 1997. She was blacklisted in Hollywood for a time after that. But that bold, brave choice made shows like Will & Grace and Modern Family possible. And these stories, highlighting gay characters authentically, helped change the mindset of Americans in a way that made the politicians finally legalize gay marriage. Not the only the domino, but an important one.
On the music front, Fight the Power (1989) by Public Enemy stirred up a lot of controversies when it was released as part of the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. There were boycotts of the movie and song, but ultimately the song became their biggest of all time and was hailed by many sources (AFI, Rolling Stone, Time, NEA, et. al.) as one of the most influential songs of that year (and even the whole decade or century). And while race relations have only marginally improved since that time, as a white kid growing up in white suburbia I can attest to songs like this having an impact on me and ultimately helping to bridge the racial gap in my own life. Not the only domino, but still significant.
And speaking of race relations, if Martin Luther King, Jr. had changed his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to a slideshow of statistics about the injustices being perpetrated on people of color, it would not have been nearly as captivating, and wouldn’t have survived the test of time. And even though his “dream” doesn’t get mentioned until over 10 minutes into his speech, that is the most quoted part because EVERYONE has a dream. That part of his “story” resonates through time to touch the lives of people of all races today.
This brings us to an important question: what is it about these works of art that have the potential to move or change us? I think there are many nuanced answers, but the one that is most compelling to me is that art makes us feel known. By connecting the abstract to the concrete, I can see a part of myself in the work of art. And the desire to be known and feel understood is the root of the human condition. This inner struggle is what drives us to form relationships, value family, and ultimately what drives most of us to seek out a spiritual connection.
For example, when I watched Goonies as a kid, I wanted to be Data so bad. Something about his story made me feel connected to him. I think all his gadgets inspired me, despite the fact that they almost always failed to work properly. Whatever the reason, feeling connected to that character made me feel part of something bigger. I was a Goonie, and that made me feel understood.
When Luke Skywalker stared out at the twin suns of Tatooine in Star Wars, knowing there’s more to life and that he was meant for greater things, it was like my own hopes and dreams were being reflected on screen. I found myself feeling connected to Luke, as did many others.
In high school, before I came out of my shell socially, I wanted to be the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Will Smith’s character resonated with me. I can’t even fully point to what it was about that “story” that made me feel known, especially considering I’m white, and grew up in predominantly white suburbs and schools. Even though Will was cool and I wasn’t, there was something about his humanity in the portrayal of that character that I connected to in a way that made me want to be him.
That’s the amazing thing about art! In two of these examples, I connected with a person of a different race than mine. I’m no developmental psychologist, but that has to have subtly influenced my worldview as I grew up.
Music, dance, novels, poetry, and all other art forms can also have these effects. I’m sure you’ve heard a song come on the radio (or at a club) and yelled out “This is my jam!”, but why do we claim ownership over it? Why is it “MY” jam? Because something about that beat, that artist, that melody, those lyrics resonates with us and makes us feel connected to something bigger.
Now I grew up in a safe, stable household complete with everything that comes with white privilege. So let’s talk about the effect art has on those who face real oppression, prejudice, or depression. Recently, I came across the Foo Fighters’ song “Times Like These” on YouTube. It’s a fantastic song, but what caught my attention was a comment down the page from someone who remarked that hearing this song gave them permission to cry for the first time in 10 years. The song had a renewed relevance during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and this particular person had a lot of pent up grief and anxiety that was released upon listening to the song again.
Google “How Hip-Hop saved my life” or “How Rap saved my life” to see stories of how Rap & Hip-Hop have brought people suffering from depression or on the brink of suicide to a place of healing.
Fan letters to the cast of Ellen, Will & Grace, Modern Family, and other shows that prominently feature gay characters show time and time again that these stories make people feel known. Search for “Glee Saved My Life” on Google, and you’ll find fan letters from Gleeks (the moniker for Glee fans). Over and over you’ll read phrases like “Glee helped me so much…”, “…the feeling I felt after every episode is a feeling I never felt in my life and I will probably never will”, and “Glee saved my life and made me happy with myself.” Those storytellers were literally saving lives, and significantly changing many more!
Now here’s the cool thing. A brain surgeon can only save one life at a time, putting a limitation on how many lives they can save over their career. Artists can save untold lives from one piece of art, and that art (unless it is a live performance) can continue to save for years to come, even decades or centuries after that artist has passed on.
There is honor in storytelling. There is respect in storytelling. And don’t ever let anyone make you feel like this is a frivolous pursuit, or that you need to get a “real” job. Storytellers hold power. We change the world.
But to change the world, you need to create. This gift you’ve been given was meant to be shared. So I charge you to take a break from the “business” side of your career and allow yourself to reconnect to your why. I hope after reading this, you’ll consider that your “why” is to change the world one story at a time, one piece of art at a time, one person at a time, by revealing your authentic self through your craft in a way that invites the audience to lean in, see a part of themselves in your work, and feel a little more known.
As a storyteller myself, if I can dispel fear in only one person by reminding them of their own beautiful, complicated humanity, and replace that fear with the knowledge that they are known, then my work is complete. That’s a fulfillment that no red carpet can approximate, and no amount of money can provide.
I can’t wait for you to make your next piece of art, because the world NEEDS it now more than ever…
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