“Once upon a time,” was rarely how bedtime stories began when I was growing up. Rather than opening a book of fairy tales, my dad would sit down in bed with me and begin weaving a story from his own imagination.
Cuddled up in bed with the hallway light flooding into my darkened bedroom, my dad would create new worlds that would make me sit upright with excitement and beg him to continue long after my bedtime had passed.
“I’ll tell you more tomorrow,” he would say, and all day at work, he would think of the next chapter for my bedtime story.
My favorite featured a heroine named Daisy who could talk to plants. She used her special ability to solve crimes in the small town where she lived.
And then there was another one about a teenage girl who, after being struck by lightening, gained the power to read minds. Her adventures were as funny as they were exciting.
In my favorite one, she foiled a grocery store robbery by reading the thief’s mind to realize the gun poking out from underneath his coat was, in fact, a banana. The culprit got away, beginning the hunt for “The Banana-Totin’ Robber.”
That story is still an inside joke between my father and me, and out of all the bedtime stories I was told, that one, for some reason, has stayed with me, still giving me a smile to this day.
Why do certain stories stay with us even as we grow older? Why are we still enchanted by the land of Oz? Or feel a rush of excitement every time Indiana Jones gets chased by that boulder?
I would argue that stories are what make us human. They are, perhaps, one of the few things that have remained constant throughout our history.
Technology changes (very few people use Morse Code these days); goals change (rather than hunting and gathering food, we now crave things like HD TVs); even food changes (100 years ago, nobody could even have imagined the Twinkie).
But one thing has stayed the same: our need to hear and tell stories.
Our methods may have changed: from cave paintings to traveling minstrels, and from radio shows to blockbuster movies.
But one thing is clear: we need our stories. If we didn’t, they would have faded away, becoming relics of a primitive time. We would marvel at them, the same way we do Stonehenge. Or we would wonder about their ancient purpose, just as we wonder about the body’s appendix.
But rather than becoming lost as the centuries roll away, stories have become more complex. Indeed, they seem to mirror our own development: as we evolve, so do our stories.
“Beowulf,” the first story ever written in English, depicts a warrior society, where honor is measured by how many men can be slain in battle.
That story is a far cry from the modern Harry Potter books, where the hero’s strength is measured by his willingness to sacrifice himself for his loved ones.
Not that every story is complex (I can think of many action, horror, and comedy movies that are not), but the ones that seem to stick with us the longest, that capture our imagination and keep us returning again and again to hear them just one more time, those stories bring something with them far beyond entertainment.
Which comes back to my original question: Why do we need stories? Their most basic purpose is entertainment, but if that was their only role, they would have died out long ago. There are plenty of other ways to be entertained that don’t involve characters and a plot.
Stories also teach us. To quote one of my favorite Disney movies, “Brave”: “Legends are lessons. They ring with truths.”
Truths about the confusing world around us and about the internal struggles we face daily.
Stories are one of the few lenses we have for understanding the uncertain lives we lead.
So when we sit down to a movie at Star Cinemas, or when we open up a book at the library, we are doing the same thing our ancestors have for centuries: We are looking for answers and asking questions.
And, of course, we are eagerly waiting for what happens next.
Here’s to always wondering what’s up ahead on the following pages. May we never stop needing our stories.
Sarah Allen may be reached at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @SarahAllenHTG.