In December 2017, I gave a lecture at a youth conference in Jakarta to 500 teenagers on the power of stories (narratives) and counter-stories (counter-narratives) - the stories that we tell ourselves about the world, us and those around us. I want to share with you in my next few blog posts some of the key themes from that lecture. In this post I'll start off by introducing what I mean by stories and counter-stories.
The power of stories
Stories are powerful. Stories have the ability to shape an individual’s life. The stories you tell children about themselves when they are young can greatly influence their lives. An example - when parents tell their children that they are smart, or say well done for being smart when they ace early exams, they will carry this identity of smartness. When parents tell their children well done for trying hard, they carry this identity of trying hard. They will continue to try hard at whatever they face. The second group of children have been shown to achieve more in life. Stories that a person is told can change someone’s life.
Stories have the power to shape tribes, towns, countries, empires and even species, as explained well in Yuval Noah Harari's book, 'Sapiens'. In the first few chapters in the book, Harari explains the rise of Homo Sapiens over the other Homo species as they developed the unique ability to tell unifying stories...myths.
What does he mean by myths? We (as members of the Homo Sapiens species) can create and comprehend complex stories that are not rooted in the physical world around us. Stories of spirits, Gods, heroes, right and wrong. And Homo Sapienswere able to gather around these unifying stories, myths or narratives, in much greater numbers than their other Homo relatives. And this the reason why we are here today.
So storytelling is a fundamental part of what it means to be human, and it was so right from our evolutionary beginnings. And we continued to do this throughout history and continue to do this to this very day. To tell stories is to be human,
and the stories we tell ourselves determine what kind of humans we will be.
"To tell stories is to be human, and the stories we tell ourselves determine what kind of humans we will be."
The counter narrative
What then, is a counter narrative? Simply put, it’s a different story. It’s a different narrative that that challenges the dominant narrative or narratives being told at the time.
As I mentioned before, narratives (stories, myths) are not rooted in the physical world around us. Just because a narrative is the dominant one held by the majority does not mean it is true for you (or true, full stop). It definitely does not mean it has a positive influence on your life. (Side note: as a coach, I'm much less interested in debates about truth and much more in how narratives impact individuals.) And if a narrative is unhealthy, or becomes unhealthy, we may need to seek out a better counter-narrative.
Throughout history we see many examples of such counter-narratives being told in the face of a dominant narrative. Such counter-narratives gave rise to democracy, the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, and the ideas such as non-violence.
Major narratives of today
As ever, there are many narratives being told to us right now. In a series of blog posts, I want to share with you four major narratives that had and continue to have a negative hold on my life and on the lives of those around me - clients, colleagues and friends. These are: perfection, consumption, results as a measure of success, and death as the end.
I hope to also explore together what better story - what counter narrative - we might want to consider instead.