Stories have a way of making us dream. But they can also help us let go and move on to what’s next.
If you asked me years ago what I thought about stories, I would’ve said that they’re entertaining at best—maybe frivolous or a waste of time at worst. Today I realize that there’s so much more to telling stories and sharing them.
Recently, the latest chapter of the Star Wars saga splashed across big screens around the world. Grown men didn’t really need to take their kids as an excuse to re-live a bit of their own childhood. I remember my own sense of awe that first time, walking out of a theater years ago and how the stars never looked the same again.
Confession? The first music album I ever bought was the movie soundtrack.
Last month, commemorating Disneyland’s 60th anniversary, the original composer John Williams led an orchestra to play a fanfare in front of a live audience. To this day I still feel the Force hearing those emotional violin strains of the Skywalker theme flowing into the booming bass of the Imperial march.
How a Space Fantasy Connects Us to Our Own Ancient Stories
But what is it about this movie that captures our imagination? Why does Star Wars continue to evoke feelings that even its own sequels pale in comparison?
Well, before it became known as Episode IV: A New Hope, the original movie was the purest distillation of the hero’s journey. This was the central core of Joseph Campbell’s body of work—he discovered that hidden in the DNA of every myth since the beginning of time was the central “monomyth.”
This wasn’t just some academic idea to Campbell though. He realized that there was something much more powerful at work, and he tried to spread one of the most radical ideas for his time in the 70’s: “follow your bliss.”
Today’s Rite of Passages in Stories
The first time I asked a girl out was to see The Empire Strikes Back. It was hardly a date since we met up awkwardly in front of the theater—her mom dropping her off; me riding my rusty three-speed bike.
Even back then, my early teen self realized that I wanted to be like cocky, suave Han Solo instead of the emo Luke Skywalker. Sure, Han may have shot first, but he also got the only girl in the known galaxy.
While there are some informal rites of passage like the Prom or maybe sports, we lack the rituals and initiations that Campbell talks, where tribal youth experience a symbolic death of their child selves and rebirth into adulthood.
“…George Lucas was using standard mythological figures,” says Campbell. ”The old man as the adviser … he gives him not only a physical instrument, but a psychological commitment and … a center … [Star Wars] communicates—it is in a language that is talking to young people today.”
What Monkeys Have to Teach Us About the Secret to Success
So, it turns out that Campbell was right, in ways that he couldn’t have imagined. At the risk of sounding like the “midichlorians” that still upset fans, there are indeed mirror neurons which affect, not only how we take in and experience stories, but also how we “infect” others with our stories.
Studying the brains of macaque monkeys, scientists discovered a strange phenomena in 1991.
When a monkey observed an experimenter grasping a peanut, the same neurons fired in the monkey’s brain, as if it were performing that very action.
Apparently, this empathy is common to primates and happens even through sharing stories. Our brains can’t tell the difference between an “actual” experience and one that’s happening in our mind.
When we watch a movie, we are actually diving into the trenches with Luke into the Death Star. We really are living the moment!
Why We Need to Tell Better Stories
Ever notice how some people you know will tell you about their struggles, and years later they’re telling the same stories?
Unfortunately, the problem is that even though they may complain to you, it’s really like the old man’s response when asked why his dog doesn’t get off the rusty nail. “I guess it doesn’t hurt enough yet.”
It’s only when we see ourselves as the hero of our stories that faces the dragons of complacency or the villainy of discomfort, that are really the many disguises of fear, and then maybe, just maybe, we’ll begin our own hero’s journey.
As Goethe said, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back … that the moment one definitely commits oneself … All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred … all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
Only by going on our hero’s journey do we face our fears—only by facing our fears, does our old self “die.” This metaphorical death, Campbell points out, is how we unlock our new life—the life we want to lead. Who we were got us to this moment, who we become will get us where we want to go.