Markus Gull

The Trojan horse power of stories.

Recently, while browsing through magazines, I came across an article about the magic of stories and naturally got stuck. The text was by a young bestselling author who is one of the greats of contemporary German literature. In it, she describes how she discovered as a child what stories can do for us humans and finally comes to the conclusion: "Because that is the greatest thing a story can do: when it can distract people who are in pain and fear from it."


In the blogcast, I read this recent blog article to you. With emphasis, of course!

Link to Apple Podcasts  Link to Spotify  Link to Soundcloud  Link to Amazon Music

Hm ... I thought to myself. But if that's the biggest thing, then the air is getting dangerously thin. If an important author focuses the power of her work on this, then it's no wonder that all around her, the far less important ones get tangled up in storytelling. Because they think it's about the storytelling itself. For it is on this line that the bait of effect is cast out, which the audience snatches at so that it is pulled, quickly hooked, to the saving escapist shore. To a place where suspense, romance and amusement are and remain comfortable. There we live in the ordinary. There, where decoration replaces art and beauty, where effect replaces truth and momentary effect blots out the eternal light in the lighthouse on the coast of the successful self. Expansion of the comfort zone, so to speak.

If that is really the case, then we will soon only consume entertainment products whose quality is measured in terms of quantity, clicks, reach, sales figures and such things. Their trick is to meet the tastes of the masses, not to inspire their feelings, thoughts and actions. There is no more depth than that of the dream ship. It's all about the algorithm. Or, as even those who live off the algorithm usually say: the algorithm rhythm.

Nothing against the occasional escape from everyday life, oh no. And certainly nothing against good entertainment. But I think we should also have a little confidence in ourselves, put ourselves through something, not make it too easy for ourselves. Don't get too comfortable in our skin, which then becomes a lazy one, where we lie around. And slowly rot away, on the rotten skin, the flaky skin, the horny skin inside and out, because we don't waste any more thought on anything than on ourselves. And on what works how - on us, for us. How we appear. What distracts us from ... hm ... yes: from what? But again, only from ourselves, isn't it?

Distraction? On the contrary!

Distracting from pain and fear is not the job of stories, but the flat opposite. Pointing to pain and fear and offering ways in which we can transform ourselves through them into something to be called a better self! And in doing so, transforming pain and suffering at the same time, into something we offer invitingly all around. Returning home after our happy ending and handing out precious souvenirs: a bit of healing power, a bit of insight, that's story.

We can have that much confidence in ourselves. Also in entertainment.

By the way, entertainment is particularly good at this. Underpinning a difficult task with lightness, nothing and no one can do that as well as entertainment. When we connect in empathy with the characters in stories because we ask ourselves the question in our subconscious: What would I do in this dilemma? How would I decide, what do I wish for the main character, what do I want to warn them about, sympathise in what? To empathise with pain and fear and finally breathe a sigh of relief. After all, that is what stories do to us and for us. With the characters in fictional stories, we create surrogates to help us understand ourselves in our real world. To recognise and understand our surrogates - in their pain, in their fear, and so in ours. This is why evolution has given us the ability of storytelling. For this we have developed language - not to exchange information, but to share experience and knowledge.

Almost everything Disney does. Most of Pixar. Isn't that entertainment like a Trojan horse? We leave something behind our stone walls with the special gift, which - unlike the ancient original - turns out not to be a Danaer gift, however, but at best a gift from heaven that makes us feel out of all clouds. A powerhouse that makes us strong from the inside out. TV series like "Glee", "This is us" or "Ted Lasso". Films like "The Lion King", "Toy Story" or "Soul". Songs like "Let it be", "What's going on" or "Wakeup everybody". Books like "A pale blue woman's handwriting" - sorry, that was literature.

Trivial? On the contrary!

Ed Ruscha once described what good art does for us: "Bad art makes you say 'Wow! Huh?' Good art makes you say 'Huh? Wow!'" So I'm not sure about art in the strict sense, but with entertainment I think every piece - yes, entertainment! - should come with an instruction leaflet, full of advice about the desired side effects. Ans-Licht-Förderung Hour, so to speak. This thought first occurred to me when, in one of my workshops, I had been talking about the inner story and its insightful nutritional value of - seemingly - trivial stories like "Rocky" and was staring into a pack of astonished open beaks.

Why is that?

Probably because we are taught grammar in our language classes, and literary history including numerical data facts, and perhaps we are also illustrated the formal beauty of what we have created, but hardly any of the teachers can convey context, meaning and significance. The situation is no different in the visual arts and in music lessons. As well ...

No wonder that the eye for the special is not there, that nothing goes inwards, because the outside is often enough more than overwhelming and distracting. Because young and old think that if they lose themselves in a story, it's because of the proven dose of suspense, romance and amusement, and that's what quality is measured by. They don't understand that in the best case they don't get lost in the stories, but find themselves in them. That they become absorbed in touching stories because an inner light comes to them that illuminates them and illuminates something for them.

Perhaps the thought looms here that this is a champagne problem after all. Art, entertainment, stories, music? - We have a pandemic to deal with, ladies and gentlemen, and the climate crisis at that! Societies are splitting at every turn, the world peace blanket is seething, democracies are sliding around on thin ice floes, and what digitalisation could do to us and out of us is gradually becoming apparent, because the thing is getting out of hand with relish ... Why should we care about the magic of stories now, please, and about what is or is not understood by them? Precisely because of that.

Only when we - a sufficient number of us in number and in action - are able to share a new story for us humans, then - and only then - do we have a chance to see in the crisis list full of pain and fear the necessary possibilities of how we can transform ourselves through it into something that wants to be called a better self. And thus transform pain and suffering at the same time, into something that we offer invitingly all around: lots of healing power from knowledge.

Hopeless? On the contrary!

We have told this story to each other many times and had a great time doing so. Since time immemorial and again in recent times. For example, in "The Lion King". For example in "Toy Story". For example in "Soul". Wake up, everybody! That would give us the basis for something like a new story, a new story that would be suitable for our whole society - indeed for the whole of humanity! - is it not?

Why do we need them? Because the old story has had its day and was effective, but wrong, or at least thoroughly misunderstood. The eternal story that we have been telling ourselves and each other ever since we were able to think as human beings, "good versus evil - and good must win", has a systemic flaw. In this story, the good guys are always us, the bad guys are the others. However, in the story of the Others, we are not us, but the Others, i.e. the bad guys. The Other is everything that stands in our way on the path to winning, that is, that must be dominated, conquered and defeated. What we need for this may be used, exploited and consumed. Everything serves as a resource for our gain, because that is how we - the good guys - win. Everyone against everyone and "... the belly of a hyena is never full ...".

A New Story, a new, a better story for all of us, is about all of us and multiplies our strengths instead of dividing us like the old story. In the old story we go at each other, in the new one we go towards each other. Beyond pain and fear.

And this New Story is in fact also a very, very old one, which has seldom been told so impressively - and therefore every year again - as at Christmas. The package insert would read: This is the story of hope. That is the inner story of Christmas, beyond religions, traditions and generations: With every child that is born, the hope is also born that the world will become a better, more peaceful, more loving place through this child. A few extra Christmas thoughts can be found here in my podcast.

Perhaps it will be born this Christmas - the famous Christmas baby? It hears its call, accepts it and brings something into the world that we all need. Perhaps - there is also this hope! - it already lives in our midst, and all we have to do is wake it up - you, me, us - so that this new story can enter the world and tell it about our interconnectedness. And of the belief that life will be better for us because of it, and of the hope that will be fulfilled if we take care of the present moment and make it the best ever, instead of telling ourselves stories that distract us from the truth.

This new story is also the subject of the poem that my grandmother, the old Story Dudette, without ever having been one of the greats of contemporary German literature, always recites in good tradition in front of the twinkling Christmas tree. It is entitled: "New Story. New Glory.

Share now

Newsletter subscription