Summer 2015 /Untold Stories/

Stories Matter

STORIES MAKE us better.

That’s not just my opinion as a writer and editor who’s made a living telling stories for many years. It’s my opinion as a human being who, like all human beings, depends on stories to keep his heart fresh and alive.

Stories can be magical things. They have the power to break down walls, blunt prejudices, calm fears, alter points of view. As I write this, the news just came in that the Supreme Court has come down on the side of gay marriage, following a veritable tidal shift in American public opinion on the subject, following lots and lots of stories—individual stories—that slowly filtered into people’s hearts.

As human beings, we’re simply not geared to sympathize with groups of people, especially groups that are, in some seemingly significant way, different from ourselves. In fact, the opposite may well be true. We fear the collective other. We eye them with suspicion and jealousy. We create stereotypes to rationalize our fears. Some of this may even be written into the darkest corners of our genes.

Statistics—the ultimate in thinking about human beings as collectives—can bring an informative bit of reality into play, and they may nudge us intellectually in a new direction, but they don’t touch our emotions. As someone once said, a million deaths is a statistic, but one death is a tragedy.

That’s because we are also wired to feel empathy—not for groups, but for individuals. We do this largely through the stories we’re told and the stories we tell ourselves about our own experiences.

Literature, I remember reading long ago, is about the creation of complex sympathies. I’ve always liked that definition. Not simple sympathies—those are too easy. It’s easy to empathize with people very much like ourselves, especially if they’ve been victimized or unjustly accused or if they’ve been thwarted by no clear fault of their own.

It gets harder, however, when it’s someone we don’t quite understand, someone whose actions or motivations or origins go against the grain of our opinions or prejudices. It gets harder still when it’s someone from a group we actively disapprove of, someone we automatically stereotype, someone we view with suspicion or fear.

That’s why stories are so important. Good stories are subversive—they intrude upon our neatly built theories with humane sympathies. They put human faces on our straw men. They’re the bulldozers in our heads that make room for growth.

The theme of this issue, “Untold Stories” might be said to be an oxymoron. After all, isn’t a story by definition something that’s told? But there are so many stories—potential stories anyway—that for one reason or another we never hear. Sometimes they’re untold because of fear or embarrassment. Sometimes because of the walls we build to keep them in. Getting them out into the open is sometimes essential therapy for those who have been keeping them inside, but it’s also good therapy for those of us who need to hear them in order to expand our own capacity for complex and humane sympathies.