What I learn from stories

What can we actually learn about ourselves from stories?

Is there something deeper happening when we read a book, listen to a lecture, a comedian, listen to a friend rant to us over beers, watch a movie, or listen to a podcast? What are we tapping into? I think most of us find that there’s a level of intrigue that elevates as soon as someone tells a story. You feel yourself leaning forward with your ears and eyes and wanting to know the outcome, or even try to predict it. But if most stories have a basic framework that is repeated over and over and over ( like the hero’s journey in many adventure films or tragedies in Shakespeare or horror, etc ) then why do we still want that same framework again and again? Do they just catch our attention for a moment, or can we take something else from them day to day?

I’m not going to focus on the science of storytelling here. I’m not going to dive into the neurological effects of what lights up when we listen to a story. It’s really fascinating but I’m not a Neurobiologist and it’s a different subject. I’m also blown away by the history of story and myth, and how we’ve only come to understand life (and still do not understand hardly anything about life) from stories being handed down. But that’s not what I’ll rant about either.

I can only really speak from my own experiences and what I’ve witnessed.

When I was younger I felt extremely distant from the world around me. I came to recognize this as “Depersonalization” in my teens. I read books, poured over art, created things, listened to hours of music, and watched countless movies not as a way of entertainment per se, but as a means to ground myself in whatever this reality happens to be. It formed much of my identity, for better or worse. Isolation has never been an empty feeling for me, but a foundational mode of existing; a purity. I found myself identifying with music that sparked something inside me; if I could relate to the lyrics or the feeling it evoked, it gave me hope, even if that feeling was confusion, angst, pain, or awe. I gravitated towards movies that focused on characters that were outsiders, outcasts, isolated, because that’s what I related to. If the character would learn something from that isolation and move into the world in a way that seemed to alter that need for being alone, it wasn’t satisfying or convincing for me. ( Example: The Martian ) Instead, if a character found his/her true self through that experience, it was something that helped me process life. ( Example: Into the Wild ) If there seemed to be a clear moral message that felt preachy or obvious, it became fairly forgettable for me.

I like to play out scenarios in my mind through stories. I like to arrive at morals on my own.

I don’t want these stories to give me a clear cut answer of how I should or should not live. I believe within us we have that map and it just needs to be dusted off, but we have to do the work. If you find yourself gravitating towards a clear cut list of rules to follow without question, you may as well be a pawn or gear in a machine, and not a human being with a soul. I suppose I believe in souls to illustrate my point here. In my mind, art should provide us with questions and we should be able to fill in the answers. Stories should play out scenarios and help us process what this life has to offer. If we do not like a character’s actions in a story we open ourselves up to, maybe it’s bad writing. Maybe it’s not truth-telling. Maybe it just doesn’t feel convincing and we “check out”. That happens to me often. Or maybe we are disturbed by our own nature or tendency towards self-centeredness. We see a character acting out scenarios in ways we don’t like because we believe our morals are higher. That may be true, but it’s these questions that help us know ourselves deeper.

Everyone has his/her own relationship to art, books, movies and stories. Mine has been one of introspection, emotional resonance, laughter, and self analysis. I believe this is because we can only exist in the now. Stories provide us with multiple avenues of possibility distilled down to the core ingredients of what is required to clearly move characters from one place to another, physically, mentally, and/or emotionally. We have an opportunity to find ourselves through them.

“Would I react that way? No? Well, why not? Do I really know myself well enough to determine that?” This is an inner dialogue I have with myself while watching certain genre films. I gravitate towards crime drama, dark comedy, psychological thrillers, and dramas a lot of the time. I like characters who have clear flaws, unclear motives, contradictions, but strong reasons for his/her actions.

Now this is all sounding pretty psychological and dark, but I actually believe comedy is what we need even more than all of this. To be able to laugh at all subject matter is a beautiful and vital thing in life. In this day and age, comedy films have become stale in my opinion. They tip toe around subjects that may offend, are predictable, and formulaic. Comedy is a place to shrink our fears and sensitivities by stepping outside of it, and letting ourselves see the absurdity, strangeness, or other funny perspectives that exist. We need to laugh. We need to laugh at uncomfortable subjects. We need to laugh at ourselves. It is healing. Ironically, comedians have become our spokespeople for understanding the world. It is to the comedians we have placed so much weight. Why? Are they the wise ones? Are they the ones who understand what’s “really going on?” No. They’re the ones asking questions, thinking outside the box, and fighting for the freedom to have conversations about anything. We need to be able to talk about anything and everything to move society forward and understand different perspectives.

What do comedians do much of the time? Tell stories. They create situations that we can relate to or imagine and provide scenarios that play out action in a way that surprises, challenges, and entertains. A joke is a miniature scenario that is designed to give us a bit of catharsis. If we don’t like it, well similar to the example I mentioned above, it could be a poorly written joke that’s too predictable or pandering to an audience. It also could be that we don’t like how it makes us feel. It hurts to hear for some reason. Why? No, really, why? These aren’t easy things to sort through and so often we’re encouraged to not ask why, and then why again. We’re encouraged these days to react. Oh, this is offensive? Unacceptable! Let’s tear down the very foundation of this person’s livelihood because somebody didn’t like the way their tummy felt when a joke was told. Being offended is a part of living life. In order to live life as a human being and truly grow and learn and think for yourself, being offended should be expected and understood and not shied away from.

“Protecting yourself from potentially being offended only means you refuse to be a person who grows and changes and accepts the world around you. Instead, attempting to create a bubble for yourself yet avoiding yourself. Protecting ourselves from the dark parts of our mind in storytelling only ensures that it resurfaces or manifests inside us in other ways. You cannot escape it.”

This is just my opinion, but it is something I’m passionate about.

This is not meant to be me saying I know how to live properly. I do know what certain books, movies, comedy, and stories have meant for me, and I see this pattern in the world around me and in other humans. I care about this subject matter because I truly believe that we cannot know ourselves without stories, and this includes stories that challenge us. If we cannot know ourselves, we cannot grow, thrive, or be a part of creating anything positive that ripples outside of us. Our default will always be to rot from the inside out if we can’t understand why we do things, say certain things, think the way we do, and then act accordingly. Stories provide a way for us to process through life, our thoughts and feelings, and dive deeper into what we think we know about ourselves. What do you actually know?

“As I have grown and faced my demons, so to speak, I’ve become less and less disassociated from the world. I believe we’re going through small changes every day that can have a massive impact on our psyche if we let it. I’ve let myself relate to other people through experiences, not only stories. It’s in the act of living, of going on adventures, of losing people, of loving, and reflecting, that I’ve found growth and clarity and some tiny little bit of happiness.”

We’re such emotional beings but pretend to be so intellectual. I really think that it’s only in searching within that we find a deeper self, motive, intuition, and meaning. Stories have done that for me, and I believe they can do that for all of us. Stories have taught me to take risks. I’m risking my time wasted or dreams failing by pursuing film and music. I’m risking failure or disappointment or both. I’m risking heart break by putting myself out there and letting myself feel deeply for someone right now. These things are scary, but worth the risk. To live out what gives your life a sense of meaning – genuine love, worthwhile pursuits, etc. is the only way I see to make this thing worthwhile. Life contains suffering, and suffering can destroy us, or build us up. It can create resilience. It’s only in seeing that played out for us that we seem to be able to find a sense of fulfillment in some small way. It’s part of why we want the same archetypes played out over and over with slightly different packaging – the framework of story is our story as people. It’s the action following circumstance that determines a story’s genre. It’s the action and reaction to what’s outside of our control that determines our character and our life. Human stories are happening all around us that are comedies, tragedies, love stories, horror, etc. How else can we decide what ours will be?


Okay, a practical suggestion here —

Yeah, great, you read books and watch movies and stuff and then reflect on life. But how does that really resonate or stick with you? In my experience, talking about movies with people really helps dig into the way we think and feel. I recognize the way my mind works in a deeper way and the way others offer alternate perspectives and it’s extremely helpful. For a lot of movie conversations –  Check out the Votary Podcast.

Another practical suggestion is writing. I find that when I take the jumbling beehive of my mind and thoughts and list words out in a linear fashion like I am now, I can think clearer and formulate words and structure my life better. Write about experiences, about your own story, thoughts, or about movies – whatever – I think it’s very helpful.

Lastly, Meditation. I grew up thinking meditation was some “New Age” practice and that it was bizarre or boring. Through the last couple of years I’ve found it to be the best way to clear out the clutter, deal with what’s really going on with me, face myself instead of avoiding, and find an endless pool of creative expression. I believe I am a better person from practicing transcendental meditation, mindfulness, breathing, yoga, walking in the woods, talking to myself, just being silent, and getting off my phone to make sure I do one of these things at least once a day. I can love deeper, think clearer, and just enjoy life more.

That’s my thought vomit. That’s how I think of stories. That’s what works for me. I’d love to hear what works for you, and/or what you guys think of any of this.

I leave you with a quote from Albert Einstein –

“Art is standing with one hand extended into the universe, and one hand extended into the world, and letting ourselves be a conduit for passing energy.“

If you’re looking to get started on a project, Votary has a passion for telling compelling stories through the art of filmmaking. We specialize in producing brand stories, creative commercials, and documentary series. If that sounds to you like we might be a fit, then let’s talk. Start a Conversation.


Jed Burdick
Jed Burdick

Father, Husband, Entrepreneur, Storyteller.