Explaining the power of stories – with a story

In 2014, James Whittaker, a Distinguished Engineer from Microsoft, decided to describe the power of storytelling by writing a parable. I like it a lot, and thought it was definitely worth sharing again.

Yrots (pronounced ēˈrots) was a warrior returning from an errand far from home. On the way he met a man who claimed he was the sole survivor of a tribe befallen with woe.

“Perhaps,” Yrots suggested to the man, “we could journey together and tell each other our stories to help pass the time. Would you like to go first?”

The man gave Yrots a disdainful look and said, “Where I am from we do not tell stories. Stories are silly tales of made-up things or pointless retellings of the past. My people prefer to think about real life and live in the present.”

Yrots did not know how to respond to this. He couldn’t imagine a society without stories. But just then both men heard a rustling in the bushes not far from the path.

Before Yrots could stop him, the man moved toward the sound. “This is interesting. I wonder what is making that noise. Let’s investigate!”

But Yrots protested. “My friend, you must be cautious. The jungle can be a dangerous place!”

The man sneered at him and proceeded toward the sound, saying, “Where is your sense of adventure? How can we discover what is in this world without experiencing it first-hand?” But as he approached the rustling bush he cried out in alarm as a lion jumped from the cover of the underbrush and grasped the man firmly in his massive jaws.

“Help!” the man cried out to Yrots. But Yrots did not move.

“Help!” the man repeated. “This lion will kill me!”

Yrots heard enough stories about lions to understand how this was going to end, whether he intervened or not.

“No,” Yrots told him. “Do not blame the lion. You were dead before the lion ever touched you. For you have no stories to protect you. Had you stories, one of them surely would have warned against the lion in the bush. I see now why all your people have perished. A life without stories is perilous.”

Yrots continued his journey alone and presently met another man with very light skin. Yrots had never met a white man before and this one was clearly in distress. He was weak from exposure and badly dehydrated. Yrots reached out to the man in pity and offered him a drink.

“I have never seen a man so fair,” Yrots said in awe as he held forth a skin full of fresh cool water. “You must have a very good story. I would like to hear this story and in return tell you many stories that may ease your journey.”

“I’ll give you a story all right black man,” the man said scornfully. “Once upon a time, white men enslaved you blacks and put you in your rightful place as our servants. And if you think I am going to drink water fouled by your lips, think again! Now step aside. I will not walk beside or behind a black man.”

Yrots was taken aback by the man’s attitude. He didn’t understand what he had done to incur the man’s wrath or why the man had no interest in his lore. But he let him go nonetheless and continued on his journey after giving the white man a good head start.

Presently, he came upon the man again. He was kneeling beside a stream in which the water ran black. The man was gulping down great mouthfuls in his thirst.

“White man,” Yrots said. “You have drunk the poison waters of the Immobilee. You will not live to see the morning.”

The man began to panic at hearing this news and demanded loudly that Yrots help him and provide him with the cure. He made many promises of glory and riches for Yrots if only he would help him recover. When his pleas fell on deaf ears he turned to threats and curses. Finally he shouted, “You cannot let me die!”

“Curse me not white man,” Yrots said after patiently allowing his belligerence to run its course. “For I am not letting you die. You were dead the moment you chose to listen to the wrong story. You tell false stories about black men but have no time to hear true stories about black water. You spend too much time telling and listening to the wrong stories. It is your bad stories that killed you.”

Yrots left the doomed man by the stream and continued walking toward home. Before long he came across a strange scene. Several men were by the side of the road. One was making a noose out of stout rope and the others were building a gallows. Another man sat in the road bound securely in chains.

Yrots immediately understood what was happening and asked the men why they wanted to hang the bound man.

“He sold us tonic,” the man making the noose said. “Claimed it would cure my gout.”

Just then one of the men building the gallows spoke up. “He told me it would make me irresistible to women.”

Another added, “Said to me it would make my hair grow back.” And then the rest proceeded to describe all the cures that the bound man had attributed to the tonic.

“May I try this tonic?” Yrots asked. When he was given the bottle, Yrots uncorked it and gave it a sniff. “It smells very good.” Then he gave it a taste and smacked his lips. “And it makes my mouth happy. I believe I would like to add this to my water just to enjoy the taste.”

The bound man seemed encouraged by the compliment to his product and pleaded with Yrots to set him free.

“You told these people that your tonic would cure things it cannot cure,” Yrots replied. “You sold only sweet water but your story told of so much more. You chose to tell an untrue story when the truth would have sold your tonic anyway. No my friend, I cannot help you against so many enemies. Enemies made by your bad stories are too strong a foe for poor Yrots.”

And Yrots turned and left the man to his fate.

Yrots was now getting close to his home and he heard the sound of many feet tramping toward him on the road. He hid behind a nearby tree lest they be unfriendly but as they got closer he recognized several of the people in the party. They were men and women from his own village. He strode toward them and they greeted him with much relief. But they told a tale of woe.

“Yrots! Our village was taken! Enemy warriors came in the night and took us by surprise. We are the ones who escaped. The rest have become prisoners. Our village is lost. Their numbers are too great to retake it and they are watchful.”

Yrots looked at each face in the group and realized his worst fears. His family was not among the escapees. He knew that meant they were still in the village being held captive.

“Where now do you go when so many of our people are left behind?” He asked. As they told their story it was clear they had given up hope and were abandoning their homes.

It made Yrots angry that they should give up so easily so he called them all together and bade them listen. He summoned all his courage and passion told them the story of Elat whose village was lost in a similar manner. Elat and other warriors from the village built a dam to divert the stream that supplied the village with water. When the conquering warriors left the village to investigate why their water was gone, Elat and his warriors fell upon them and defeated them. They retook their village and Elat and his warriors became heroes.

“There is also a stream that runs through our village,” someone in his audience said and with that, the people of Yrots’ village set to work. They blocked the stream and surprised the enemy when they emerged to investigate. Yrots and his people were victorious. Afterward he was reunited with his family and there was much feasting and merrymaking.

Late into the celebration, just before the people put their children to bed the discussion turned to how to ensure that there would never be a repeat of what just happened, that never again would they forget how to defend their homes and their people.

They turned to their recent hero Yrots who stood slowly and said, “Gather around children, for I will give you something more powerful than any weapon and stronger than any wall. I am going to tell you a story.

“What is your story about?” the children demanded, puzzled at how a story could give them such power.

“My story is a tale of four men. One who knew no story. A second who knew the wrong story. A third who told false stories and the last who forgot stories. Listen carefully children because without strong stories, you yourself cannot be strong. Our stories are our protection against everything that would harm us and a guide for all things that will make our lives better.”

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