Humans are storytelling animals. Have you heard about the story of the wild pig and the seacow? You probably think I’m joking, but there really is a story about these two! The wild pig and seacow were best friends who enjoyed racing each other for sport. Unfortunately, one day, the seacow hurt his legs and couldn’t run anymore. What did the wild pig do? He carried his buddy down to the sea, where they could race forever, side by side, one in the water, one on the land.
Short and sweet: You can learn a lot from a tale like that — about friendship, cooperation, empathy and an aversion to inequality. And if you were a child in the Agta community in the Philippines known as a hunter-gatherer population, you’d have grown up on the story, and on many others that teach similar lessons.
The practice of storytelling has become ubiquitous in all cultures over all eras in all parts of the world. Now, a new study in Nature Communications, helps explain why: storytelling is a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms, and it pays valuable dividends to the storytellers themselves, improving their chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support and even having healthy offspring.
From the beginnings of language (in whatever form), humans used stories to educate and entertain: myth, poetry, song, art, gossip, even politics. They are all forms of storytelling. Nowadays, social media is a new way of telling stories. Ask anyone who is addicted to Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn and more! What is so interesting about it? Everyone on there is telling their story!
As human beings, we are automatically drawn to stories because we see ourselves reflected in them. We share stories for building community through empathy and coherence. It enables people to connect across differences and to generate narratives that hold together groups, organizations and movements.
Stressing unity between divergent interests has often been the basis of effective change. For example, look no further than the genesis of the European Union after the Second World War. To change systems, we need to change our glasses and see the world from other people's perspectives. Stories help us with this area.
Sharing individual stories about a system can help people develop new perspectives on the system they share, as veteran systems practitioner David Stroh said in an interview. “It’s like the story of the blind men and the elephant. Everyone only sees their part of an elephant. They see the individual stories they tell themselves about what’s true. Sharing these helps them create a more expanded and accurate collective narrative. It enables them to develop a shared picture of reality.”
“Any large-scale human cooperation—whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe—is rooted in common myths that only exist in people’s collective imagination.” — Yuval Noah Harari
We no longer live in a world of passively inherited stories. We’re increasingly creating and sharing our own on a daily basis. As movement-builders, our work is to get the right balance between structure and openness, creating stories that both build communities and encourage others to actively author their own, giving them a greater stake in the issue.
Understanding the tremendous impact of dominant narratives and developing the skills to author new ones can catapult people from a place of acceptance (of the system and their role in it) to a place of action. Systems changers must enable people to find their agency and understand they are not passive recipients of history.
On a cultural level, the stories we live in justify the status quo, make institutions feel inevitable, legitimize certain kinds of solutions, and make our world feel preordained. These cultural narratives are foundational to our opinions on issues like immigration, security, and vaccination; they affect our norms who we think of as insiders and outsiders, who is deserving and undeserving, and why our world looks the way it does.
As Harari describes in his book, to be human is to live in myth; our civilizations have always been based in them. Working with myth is integral to the work of changing the values, mindsets, rules, and goals of a system. These stories have a deep effect on our psyche and collective direction of improving our world. Imagine living 100 years ago. How has life changed and why and how?
In The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough, author Alex Evans develops this idea of the principles that need to underlie new myths. He believes we can use “our powers of collective storytelling to imagine a future in which it all goes right, creating a myth about redemption and restoration that adds up, if you like, to an Eden 2.0.”
But rather than try and create this story himself, he outlines three principles for 21st-century myths: a larger us, a longer now, and a better good life. How do we develop new processes of collective storytelling to help us navigate these turbulent and polarizing times? Wouldn’t it be nice to have more stories about the field of systems change?
It is time for systems change practitioners and storytellers to work together in new ways to build a better world and understanding so that “living happily ever after” exists off the page as well as on it.