The poet is a young man, what is called a “millennial” these days. He walks onto a sparse stage, alone, carrying a backpack. He begins hesitantly, awaiting the inspiration of the muses to guide him.
At first, it’s a little awkward for us around him. What is he doing? He appears self-conscious before all of us, we who sit and judge.
He persists and slowly his presence and manner feels less contrived. He overcomes his vulnerability; or maybe we accept his vulnerability and generate compassion toward him. We listen, and he becomes passionate about the telling of his story — one of the oldest in the world.
It’s a vivid modernist retelling of The Iliad that has me musing about the power of stories.
I think stories are like evidence of quantum theory. When you listen to a story, your brain acts as though it is experiencing the story firsthand. The words and voice stimulate neurological behavior identical to the actual experience. An action in one dimension creates a reaction in another, a connection somehow, across time and space.
Our brains behave like participants, rather than spectators, during stories. The words we read or the voices we hear become neurological impulses and trigger chemical reactions — we feel the story in emotions. That’s why we remember stories better than lectures, that’s why scientists say that humans are wired to tell stories.
Stories are the way inside the mind, and also, in business, the currency of marketing. Social media flourishes because it feeds storytelling of the most personal kind, and we can’t resist. We are vulnerable to stories, we say they touch our hearts, but truly, they invade and infect our brains.
Back to the performance: The poet was telling essentially the same story that survived as an oral tradition for hundreds of years — perhaps thousands — before it was ever written down. It is a story so important that it had to be shared and kept alive; people dedicated their lives to telling this story. And now, this young man joins their ranks. Brilliantly.
I’m grateful that this tradition persists. I’m grateful for the performers like the poet, and for storytellers in general, whether in book, prose, song, video, or today’s interactive digital media. Ones and zeros, voices in the dark — as long as we are telling stories, we are figuring out how to make sense of our world. We are showing that we are human, and there is hope for us to learn new stories.
- National Geographic review of “Why Homer Matters”;
- The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall (Mariner Books)
- Art Credit: Blacktop Creative, reproduced from the program of An Iliad, which was performed at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Jan. 23-Feb. 15, 2015