During my life I have set out to do many foolish things. I once vowed to read every worthy work of literature ever written. Not there yet. Later I decided I would not waste time on recent writing. I would not read anything that had not passed the test of time, say 25 years, a long period of time for someone who was 24.
Nevertheless, there is value in reading older works. There is a flood of writing today decrying our increasingly “tribal” world. One recent book, Sebastian Junger’s Tribe, explores the motivations for, and benefits of, belonging to a group with a distinct identity or purpose.
This topic was examined in 1951. Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman poet and philosopher, wrote The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. There is little, if anything, written today that Hoffer did not address. The best recent work is, at best, rediscovered wisdom.
Certainly, some good things come from passionate affiliations, but there is a truly a dark side to the mass movements that form and evolve in politics and beyond. Hoffer is at his best when he describes the motivations of those who feel they have meaningless lives and have no hope for a better future. Some give up all personal identity and sign on to follow a person or ideology and be a part of something larger.
Hoffer writes that those within mass movements do not require a god, but they need to find a devil. Those on both sides of the political spectrum, left or right, are very much the same. Pick a devil: communists, rich people, those of a specific sexual identity or race, capitalists, Catholics, Jews, technocrats, taxes, the deep state, and much more.
In the end, for some, there is little that gives more meaning to life than to passionately and unashamedly hate someone or something.
During my 40 years in practice as a psychiatrist, I at times advocated for patients at the North Carolina State Legislature. On one occasion I accompanied a staff member of a rural mental health program to ask for funding. We gave the legislators a thick handout describing various kinds of mental health needs in the population of people we served.
My colleague, experienced in this arena, was not confident that the legislators would even read, let alone understand our data. So, he chose to tell them a story. He began, “I’d like to tell you a story about a boy. His name is Billy.” What followed was a description of a troubled twelve-year-old with many emotional and developmental needs. With a great deal of effort, we had been able to help him a lot.
No legislator nodded off during the story, and several leafed through the handout as the telling proceeded. The punchline was well delivered: we have many Billys that we need to help and we need more resources to do that. Our request was successful.
The above is but one use of the genius of storytelling. The storyteller is one of those oldest professions, the keeper of the culture before the written word and modern media were created. Ancient heroes, villains, wars, floods and more, all kept alive in oral tradition until words could be recorded on clay tablets and later various forms of paper.
We use storytelling to inspire, to sell, to persuade, to entertain, and to remember and be remembered. The fact that we now sometimes put it to print or record and preserve the voice electronically does not change the fact that at the core it is called storytelling.
There is a difference between reading a book and listening to a live storyteller. The differences are beyond this writing, but once you hear a master storyteller present his or her best, you will understand.
Those who aspire to write would do well to first listen.
I read. I write. I learn. I’m in a writing group and I have four published books. I’m still pretty sure I’m not Steinbeck, but my heart and soul have found their way back to where they should be.