How Stories Shape Us

When I was a kid, I read Archie Comics and MAD magazine, Nancy Drew books and almost the entire Judy Blume collection. It wasn’t high literature; I just appreciated a good story, which is why I also saw every episode of the Brady Bunch at least once.

Now that was good television.

Eventually, though, I got hooked reading the memoirs of saints and sages: Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahamsa Yogananda, and Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux; Think on These Things by J. Krishnamurti and Planting the Seed by Satswarup Goswami, among others.

It wasn’t until I was well-beyond my school years that I heard anything about the ancient stories of India —epic tales from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which were compiled thousands of years ago by sages Vyasadev and Valmiki, respectively.

My husband, however, grew up listening to these stories.

One of his earliest memories was being held by his mother on the balcony of their home in Krishnanagar. “Chand Mama, Chand Mama, tip diye jao!” she’d say, imploring Uncle Moon to come down and become a small bindi on his forehead.

With one arm holding him, she’d reach over the awning with her free hand. Employing simple slight-of-hand, she’d produce a tea biscuit and claim that Hanuman (of Ramayana fame) was on the roof and that he’d handed her the biscuit to deliver to her son.

This went on for a few years, until he eventually discovered that it was his mother who produced the biscuits. “MA!” he shrieked. She just laughed.

Anyway, here’s the thing:

Both the Ramayana and Mahabharata are filled with such adventure, heroism and romance, that you don’t realize you’re imbibing profound spiritual truths along the way –which is the whole point.

By listening to these ancient stories, people got a sense of their history and themselves in relation to it. They were cut from a cloth woven by sages, kings and devas, and they grew up considering the moon and the wind to be not-so-distant relatives.

With satellite television and Internet access becoming ubiquitous, I hope that the telling of these ancient stories remains a cherished tradition. As Andy Goodman contends via Erich Vieth at Dangerous Intersection,

Narrative is so incredibly powerful because it sets forth our history, our identity, how we remember, why we give, and to whom we give.  These emotionally charged ideas don’t readily sink in without the use of stories.  In fact, without the power to tell its own stories, a culture has no opportunity to “grow up.”

The same might be said for us, as individuals:

Our growth depends on the stories we hear –and then tell ourselves. What are your favorite stories? How have they shaped your own?




To be fair, my husband also read comic books as a kid, which is, among other reasons, why I married him.

Illustration: Pieter Weltevrede/

This entry was posted in Art & Identity, Society & Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How Stories Shape Us

  1. I have always loved The Brady Bunch. My boyfriend hears (literally) on a weekly basis how much I want to have Alice live with us and hang out with me. :)

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