Our Special Gift

What makes us different from all other species?

evolution

When I was a boy, I recall being told that humans had the biggest brains, which made them the most intelligent creatures. Another sign of our exceptionalism was sentience, being able to perceive or feel, to have consciousness.

Scientists cite plenty of evidence that mammals, birds, and even octopuses exhibit a conscious state, so we’re not alone as sentient beings. Intellect is manifested in countless ways among other species. Communities of elephants, whales, and dolphins reveal complicated exchanges and a remarkable grasp of complex ideas and emotions. Ravens, rodents, macaques, gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants and sea otters have been observed fashioning and using tools.

I hear your retort. Human beings have an advanced technical facility, an ability to make things, transform their environment, and study themselves. It’s clear they’re a prominent (and dominant) life form.

Yes, we’ve certainly made our mark on the earth. We’ve also made a mess of it. Some would argue that the very way we’ve engineered the destruction of a sustainable environment proves that we’re a foolish and careless species; which gives us no right to pat ourselves on the back for intelligence or sentience, for that matter.

However, I’d like to raise a special gift we have.

I’m talking about telling stories. We employ them to explain ourselves; to entertain, get a laugh, draw tears; to show empathy; find common ground; make excuses; sow peace and turn enemies to friends. The question, “How was your day?” is an invitation to tell a story. When a friend says, “You’ll never believe what just happened to me,” it’s the beginning of a tale that promises to put you in her shoes, or evoke his envy, invite congratulations, or provoke a smile. The phrase that begins, “something like that happened to me, once . . .” offers shared experience, community and comfort. Stories are our currency as social beings. The stories we tell each day not only teach, they cure loneliness, end solitude, forgive and absolve guilt, and make a cold, unfriendly world warmer.

This is not to say that stories are all good. Wars have been started with stories, but peace has also been maintained with them. I cannot think of anything else that changes people as easily and simply. Stories provide that most valuable of qualities: hope. We can right wrongs with them, solve big mistakes, change minds and stir people to action. Perhaps we can even engineer our own salvation on this planet.

That’s an extraordinary thing for mere words to do.

 

Images and text copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen

 

Ancient Super-Heroes

During my school visits I encourage students to imagine living thousands of years ago, and I ask the question, “Do you think children long ago had super heroes?”

perseus

This usually draws a blank from the assembly. So I mention the myths. Every ancient culture had myths and heroes to go with them. Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Mayan and Greek, just to name a few. The Greek heroes are perhaps most familiar to American children: Hercules, Perseus, and Jason. Now comes the glimmer of recognition, the eureka! moment, because these timeless stories have been made popular again by authors like Rick Riordan. They are every bit as exciting, and probably more interesting than the parade of Marvel characters kids see in movie theaters and on their home screens.

To be frank, I find most of these movies dull and repetitive. More attention is paid to the special effects than to the characters and one comes away feeling hammered by their bombast and fuzzy about the hero.

Oh yeah, you say? What’s so special about the Greek myths? First, these tales have lasted the test of time, passed down at the fireside for thousands of years. Second, their characters are vivid and their adventures compel them to change—a fundamental law of a good story.

Hot-headed Hercules, the strongest man in Thebes, takes on the twelve labors to do penance for murdering his own family; shrewd Odysseus takes his sweet time returning home from war, then has to win over his wife; and Perseus, naively sets off to slay Medusa and bring her head to his step-father as a wedding gift, but discovers that the man is his mother’s captor. These are stories of sly cunning, wordplay, stealth and daring. Often these heroes are in crises of their own making and they have extraordinary psychological depth.

I think there’s a third, critical benefit for kids reading the Greek myths. They convey a sense of story; that is, an awareness of what constitutes a satisfying ending. This is a very hard thing to explain—especially to young minds in abstract terms. You know it when you read it. And you can only know it by reading good stories. An effective tale is not merely a series of events, but a series of conflicts that progress to a moment of resolution, which might be ironic, empowering, or a simple affirmation.

I will probably tinker with that definition for years, but the point is obvious if you read the story of how Theseus navigated the labyrinth and conquered the Minotaur. Edith Hamilton’s version in Mythology is a short, ironic tale of a cunning hero who is changed tragically by his quest.

 

Text copyright (c) 2018 by George Hagen