The power and courage of a good story can change the world

In 1987, when I was 11 years old, my Gram handed me a copy of Gone With the Wind, and said, “Here, read this. You’re ready.” In those pages, I learned about war, and slavery, and the indomitable spirit of women. I haven’t stopped reading that book for 35 years.

In 1990, when I was 14, I became obsessed with the movie Dances with Wolves. I remember sitting in a theater with a few girlfriends, surrounded by Assiniboine and Sioux who had traveled to our little Montana prairie town – the nearest movie theater – to watch the truest representation of their people to date in a Hollywood film. I listened to them laugh, cheer, and sob. And I laughed, cheered, and sobbed with them. My little blonde friends, whom I looked just like, thought I was nuts, and I didn’t care.

In 1992, when I was 16, we read To Kill a Mockingbird in English class. Atticus Finch said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” And I decided at that moment that I would spend my life climbing into other people’s skin, no matter how uncomfortable it felt.

In 1993, when I was 17, I watched Schindler’s List in a different small Montana movie theater. It was a new town to me. I walked into that theater an angry kid in a world that felt unfair and broken. I knew about the Jewish holocaust from history class, but I did not know it until I watched that film. When I got home, I sat down on the steps in front of my house and cried so hard my nose bled. I walked into my house that night no longer a child.

In 1997, when I was 22, I watched the movie Life is Beautiful in the historic Wilma Theater in Missoula, Montana when I was a senior in college. When I got back to my apartment, I threw up before crying myself to sleep. I awoke in the morning determined to see beauty everywhere, no matter what.

In 2023, at age 46, I watched a series called A Small Light, about the story of Anne Frank and her family. I didn’t want to watch it because I knew the ending. But I did. Because if we aren’t careful, we will forget what happens when we start loving our ideas of the way things should be more than we love each other.

And when that happens, families are torn apart. Cultures are destroyed. People die. Hope fades.

Why do I tell you this?

Because stories change people. We cannot control how others behave, how others love or hate and destroy. All we can do is tell our stories, to as many people as will listen, as beautifully and honestly as we know how. We don’t have to tell them perfectly. But we absolutely must tell them.

Life is fragile. But stories? Stories are more powerful than any gun, any war, any heartbreak, any death. It is as simple and complex as this…

If we do not tell our stories, then hate wins.

But when we vulnerably share, hate – and all those who carry it – are lost to history. Every time I encounter acts of cruelty, sanctimony, or self-righteousness, the storyteller in me wonders how it is that the perpetrators don’t recognize themselves in every bad guy, every villain, in every story ever told.

Don’t they realize that their identity is completely lacking in originality? That they have silenced all the beautiful, unique pieces of themselves in exchange for mundane, run-of-the mill bad guy stuff? I find it tragic, and wonder who they’d be if they loved themselves enough to be original.

What stories of hate bring a reader back to the same words for 35 years?

What stories of hate bring different cultures together to laugh, cheer, and sob?

What stories of hate teach a sheltered child empathy?

What stories of hate, in just a few short hours, turn an angry child into an impassioned adult determined to change the world?

What stories of hate, told in a different language about a different time and place, inspire a sheltered young woman to find joy in every moment?

What stories of hate remind a tired, discouraged middle-aged writer that her wild ideas to change the world might be far-fetched, terrifying, and overwhelming, but her voice still matters?

The best stories…

The best stories are those that include trials, triumphs, and so much love. They aren’t always happy. They are often messy, complicated, and tragic. But at the end, and at the core, the bad guys lose, and love wins.

The best stories are those that remind us that a few people, willing to risk security and popularity, can silence hate to the annals of history, simply by being themselves.

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