How We Engage With Stories and Movies Has The Power To Change Our Lives. (The Power of Stories: Part 1)
My mouth was tight and shaking as I wiped the streaming tears from my eyes, a little embarrassed even though I was alone in the room. I’m a 37-year-old man, crying because of an alien sci-fi movie. Nay, I wasn’t crying. I was a wreck.
I rushed to my kids’ room (they were already asleep.) I held them close, trying to be present in the moment. I whispered how much I loved them and vowed to not skip a moment. To be present. To be aware. To cherish it all.
I had just finished the movie, “Arrival,” and it had changed my life.
Movies Are Stories. Stories Make Us Human.
In the ancient world, if you wanted to teach a kid the value of hard work, what would you do? Have them watch a Ted Talk? Watch an entertaining influencer on YouTube?
You would tell a story. A story that transplanted their brains into the character and allowed them to experience consequences and rewards.
For most of history, humans used stories to:
- Pass down legacies and establish tradition
- Teach values and principles
- Inspire courage and resiliency
- Help understand meaning and purpose
Stories are still powerful, but how we engage with them makes all the difference.
Ways We Engage With Stories
Stories To Numb
This is the way most of us engage with stories. We use stories like comfort food. Our drugs. Our alcohol. We use them to escape reality. I’m not judging. I do it. Reality is harsh and stressful. For 40 minutes, I can forget about crazy, screaming politicians and my car breaking down and my need to exercise and that voice in my head that says, “you are a failure.” And I can watch the Mandalorian hide behind his helmet and bask in the cuteness of baby Yoda. When used sparingly, this can be helpful. It can be a respite. A break. A way to disconnect and give our brains a rest.
But movies and shows can be so entertaining, they can become addicting. We use them to avoid our emotions and actual lives. We stop digging deeper into the meaning and truth behind the stories and we simply numb-out.
Stories To Build Ego
How many superhero movies are there now? Seriously. I heard the Avengers are now saving multiple galaxies and have multiple versions of themselves? That’s a lot.
The Hero’s Journey is a concept that you probably are familiar with. Joseph Campbell argues that most significant stories follow a similar structure. One reason we relate to stories is we see ourselves as the hero.
There is a big push from some groups to market your product or business through the lens of the Hero’s Journey — the customer is the hero, you are the guide, and you’re helping them along the journey.
This is problematic to me. Sure, I like Campbell’s framework and it’s helpful to think through marketing with the lens of storytelling. But is this the best way to engage with stories? To see ourselves as the hero?
This way of engaging with stories can boost our ego. I’m the hero. I have the power to save the day. My causes are the right ones. My tribe is the correct tribe.
How distorted is this? Is it realistic to think that we can all be Wonder Woman? In peak physical condition, gorgeous, funny, always on, always well-dressed, always able to pull off a last-second miracle. Is this what actual life is for you?
What if this creates a false view of what a hero actually is? Maybe a real hero is a dad who spends a lot of time with his kids. What if a hero is someone who is a good listener to people’s problems? Or maybe a hero creates a small business that solves a problem in the local community.
Stories To Build Awareness
Back to Arrival. As I watched this story, it was not simply entertaining or numbing me from my reality. It actually helped me focus acutely on my reality. It also didn’t make me want to be a hero or to “save the day.” I don’t want to interact with aliens or even worse, have to do science…
This story helped me become more aware of the beauty of life. It opened my eyes to the wonder of a moment and to the paradox of time. It reminded me that my time with my family and loved ones is precious, and I would be a fool to waste it.
What if stories could be a way to transform our thinking and make us more aware of life and beauty and love and pain and joy? Imagine if we didn’t just consume stories like they are Hot Cheetohs, but we looked deeper into the truths and values they offer. Imagine if we allowed stories to inform us of our current reality and give more meaning.
This is the way to engage with stories. We let them be a mirror, revealing truths about our life, helping us transform and become more aware.
To hear more, listen to Episode 2 of my podcast Unseen Orbits: “Why Good Movies Have The Power To Change Our Lives.”