FEATURE — Click, click. Click, click. Click, click. That was the not so imaginary sound my imaginary camera made as I documented the red rock cliffs of Southern Utah from a back window of my family’s conversion van.
I was mesmerized by the varying hues of orange jutting out of the earth and felt compelled to document them in the only way my five-year-old self could. In my mind. With my pretend camera. And with sound effects to make it real.
Absorbed in my work, my click-clicks continued for miles. Until my aunt, who had been patiently humoring me for the better part of an hour from her shotgun seat next to my mother, threatened to hurl the obnoxious sound making contraption out the window.
I’m pretty sure she meant the imaginary camera and not me. But whatever her intent, the threat silenced the click-clicks immediately.
It didn’t, however, silence the story that had started to take shape in my head. The story of the magical orange rocks and their magical orange powers. A story that would keep me entertained quietly in the back of the van for the rest of the road trip.
By then, I’d already had some practice telling stories to myself.
The previous Christmas, I’d notoriously told the nativity flannel board story to my whole family – in almost complete silence.
I only broke from the scenes quietly playing out in my head with the occasional, “oh, you’re really going to love this part,” as I placed a new cutout on the board, before settling back into my silence.
Years later, my family still tells the stories of the click-click road trip and the silent nativity.
Both are favorites in our family lore – a part of a cache of stories we tell when we gather together at holidays and on summer vacations.
Stories that make us laugh together. Stories that make us cry together. And stories that help us feel bonded as a family.
It isn’t all that surprising then that according to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, storytelling is what made all the difference of us as, well, humans.
Harari explains that before the agricultural and industrial revolutions, there was the cognitive revolution. And during this cognitive revolution, Homo Sapiens were transformed by the ability to communicate about things that weren’t really there; about myths and legends and fictions.
Myths and legends and fictions that bound us together. Into families. Into groups. Into peoples. In ways that no other creature on earth was before.
Take for example a monkey. A monkey can tell another monkey there is a lion by the river when there is a lion by the river. A monkey can also tell another monkey there is a lion by the river even if there is not a lion by the river.
But a monkey cannot tell another monkey about an imaginary lion by the river that serves as a guardian force for the jungle.
Only humans can do that. Only humans can weave fiction. Only humans can make an Aslan or a Dumbledore or a Frodo.
And this ability to weave a story or to create myth allows us to have beliefs held in common.
These common beliefs then allow us to cooperate more easily and in bigger numbers. They allow us to form coalitions. They allow us to help each other. To bond as families, as groups, as peoples.
They make us what we are. They make us who we are. The stories make us human.
But sometimes our stories fail us. Sometimes they start in a way that excludes. Sometimes they begin in a way that is unjust. Sometimes they grow and change in a way that even kills.
And then those same stories lose their power. They lose their power to bind. They lose their power to connect. And we lose our power as human beings.
Today in America, we have stories that are failing us – stories that are dividing us. Into the haves and the have nots. Into those who get justice and those who don’t. Into those who feel heard and those who do not.
When that happens, our stories need to change. Good thing they still can.
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