The Power of Story

A key idea I enjoy is that practice and belief are completely separate powers that can be joined or left apart. You really don’t have to believe a story for it to change your life.

Let me provide a concrete example. In a former life, I had a cool job of developing trading card games and card games. Most of our products were based off of intellectual properties like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bleach or Dragonball Z. This means that I got my share of Anime and Comic Book conventions.

At these conventions, you see people dressed up and acting like the favorite characters from these shows. You will find many a Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Dearth Vader, Batman, Superman, Ichigo Kurosake, Goku, Tohru Honda, etc. The costumes are of such depth and breadth that one cannot help but appreciate the art and commitment these fans have for their stories.

And aside from a few severe whack jobs, most of them know the stories aren’t found anywhere on Earth. But still, they find them useful.

I find it interesting that stories of both “fiction” and “fact” create much of the same behavior and human connection that defines us. And fiction is especially more influential that many realize.

One time I saw the the late James Doohan tell a story about his experiences at Star Trek conventions. Doohan (Scottie) is often reputed as the most giving and kind-hearted of the cast of the original Star Trek series. He really put out for his fans and realized the power of the role he created.

Doohan reported that he heard the same phrase emit from thousands of fans over and over, “You are the reason I became an engineer.”

How did this happen?

Well for one thing, Doohan flat out hounded young men and women to be engineers. Some of his fans he knew well and he watched them progress toward engineering excellence. Why? Because it wasn’t James Doohan telling them to be engineers.

It was Scottie.

Doohan was no engineer, but he was a brave and valiant man. As a member of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, he stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

Think that running the bulls in Spain is macho? Compared to D-Day, running the bulls is like a day in the park with naughty Nurse Chapel.

So yes, Doohan WAS Scottie. He was the brave soldier fighting against the Nazi atrocities. And that personal integrity really came out in Scottie. So in a way, none of us were fooled.

Scottie was REAL as far as these engineers were concerned. His name was James Doohan.

The power of the story of Star Trek to drive innovation is legendary. And Doohan’s character was a major part of that innovation. His was the story of Engineering: the face and timber of stubborn rigor and courage to find the right solution for the day, even if the captain is about to make your precious ship explode.

And here is the point: few people believe that Star Trek is true in this Universe, but someday I think there will be a Starship Enterprise. Our love of this story will build THAT ship. It will go forth and it will seek out new life. And believe me, an engineer will be on that ship. And she will be baddass. Why?

Cuz Scottie never quits.

So we humans reenact stories that are fiction, no? But what about stories that are true? We know that Anime and Comic buffs dress up and play. What about history buffs? Can they join with the same fanatical love as comic book and sci-fi geeks?

Well, yes.

There are scores of Civil War reenactment events across this great divided land of the U.S of A. Civil War reenactors go to great lengths and expense to obtain authentic costumes and manners to recreate some of the great battles.

So we dress up and reenact stories that are false AND true.

Okay, you may say, but that’s not me. THOSE people are the fringe of society. Me? I’m way too cool to fall prey to such delusions.

Not so fast.

Sports fans are the WORST. You see them dress up in their favorite athletes jersey. They know their athletes life stories, stats and personal lives. Even the most stoic CEO will go gaga over an autograph of their favorite sports star. Why? Because they love the story.

But aren’t sports games and not stories? Absolutely not. The story element that aligns with sports is woven throughout every sporting event. And past heroics are recounted by fanboys with glazed eyes just like they are sharing the sacred meaning of the universe: the battle for the Super bowl rings; the Pennant pilgrimage, the stories just get better and bigger.

Finally, lets discuss how involved people get with other TV shows, movies and books. Many people would never be caught dead in a dress-up scenario, but do you ever notice how often people quote movie lines? Or large segments from Seinfeld? Or get so involved about how a story line that isn’t going the way they want? Or rush home to see what happened  to Hank on Californication? 

And religion also has the same kind of “dress up and play” element to it. Many followers are taught by their scriptures to be like the heroes and messiahs of their faith and the world is filled with religious media from plays, music, novels, movies, and costumes. Every religion has story. And they all get told.

But the big idea I feel is important is about the power of story itself. Pure and simple. We are the stories in our heads, whether they are “true” or not.

I once saw a liberal Christian working side by side with a conservative evangelical in a homeless shelter. The two people loved the same story but had two different views of its usefulness. One believed the story’s usefulness came from its truthfulness, and the other believed that usefulness does not depend on truthfulness. Two views – one happily fed homeless guy.

And he loved the story too. But other stories in his head and circumstance kept him in poverty.

Yes, stories are that powerful. So much so that they can set us free from ourselves, and at the same time bind us in ignorance.

So stories are never just stories. We make them true, and they make us true.  We turn history into mythology and mythology into history.

It’s what we do.

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