Storytellers and Stonecutters

When I was young and going through a terrible childhood, I had stories told to me, that I told myself, and that I found. Each of these stories hindered or hurtled me forward in life.

The stories told to me involved not being good enough. It came from trusted adults and peers, and for a long time, I believed them and told them back to myself as the truth. I think some of the adults in my youth hoped this would help motivate me to achieve more, that dissatisfaction would lead to healthy perfectionism. I think the best of these people overshot, and personal dissatisfaction became shame and self-loathing—plus, there’s no such thing as healthy perfectionism, because the root of that particular quirk isn’t focused on excellence, it’s focused on I cannot be bad. The other people who told stories of why I’m not good enough, from the movies that featured Asians who could be nerdy but not do the nasty, to the men within my immediate dating radius who singled out Asians as unwanted or only wanted for a stereotype, I think didn’t have to overshoot, because they were consistent.

However, I also found stories that told me something different about myself. Giant Robot and other Japanese imports showed me that I could be the hero (and speak English that didn’t match up to my lip movements, oddly enough), that I had a place in science fiction which, whether on Earth or elsewhere, implied the future. Alan Moore’s run on The Saga of the Swamp Thing was a game-changer for me—and if you’ve ever wondered why kids love monsters and mutants and gangsta rappers, it’s my theory that outsiders are more relatable when you feel like an outsider yourself—it set me on a road to writing about the truths I saw in the world, but more important, to see if I could shape the world through stories as other stories had shaped me.

I make the distinction between the world and reality. Reality is reality, and it doesn’t change—it’s what’s there all the time. The world, on the other hand, is what we superimpose on reality—it’s our perception and interpretation of what is there. Ever learn a new word, and suddenly, you hear everybody using it? Ever smell a scent, and it brings back a vivid memory? Your senses don’t experience reality directly so much as take it in, convert it into electric pulses that are carried by nerves into the brain and then translated into your experience of the world—one uniquely your own. What’s fascinating is that this is your imagination, your mind—the one sense that rules them all—and it’s attuned to stories.

And that makes stories the most powerful tool we have. From cave paintings to ebooks to the anecdote at the dinner table, it’s never stopped being the thing we’ve used to create the world we want to live in, or that we want others to live in.

I’ll leave you with a Chinese folk tale called The Stonecutter, which was recounted in one of my favorite books, The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. Here it is in its entirety:

“There was once a stonecutter who was dissatisfied with himself and with his position in life.

One day he passed a wealthy merchant’s house. Through the open gateway, he saw many fine possessions and important visitors. “How powerful that merchant must be!” thought the stonecutter. He became very envious and wished that he could be like the merchant.

To his great surprise, he suddenly became the merchant, enjoying more luxuries and power than he had ever imagined, but envied and detested by those less wealthy than himself. Soon a high official passed by, carried in a sedan chair, accompanied by attendants and escorted by soldiers beating gongs. Everyone, no matter how wealthy, had to bow low before the procession. “How powerful that official is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a high official!”

Then he became the high official, carried everywhere in his embroidered sedan chair, feared and hated by the people all around. It was a hot summer day, so the official felt very uncomfortable in the sticky sedan chair. He looked up at the sun. It shone proudly in the sky, unaffected by his presence. “How powerful the sun is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be the sun!”

Then he became the sun, shining fiercely down on everyone, scorching the fields, cursed by the farmers and laborers. But a huge black cloud moved between him and the earth so that his light could no longer shine on everything below. “How powerful that storm cloud is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a cloud!”

Then he became the cloud, flooding the fields and villages, shouted at by everyone. But soon he found that he was being pushed away by some great force, and realized that it was the wind. “How powerful it is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be the wind!”

Then he became the wind, blowing tiles off the roofs of houses, uprooting trees, feared and hated by all below him. But after a while, he ran up against something that would not move, no matter how forcefully he blew against it – a huge, towering rock. “How powerful that rock is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a rock!”

Then he became the rock, more powerful than anything else on earth. But as he stood there, he heard the sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into the hard surface, and felt himself being changed. “What could be more powerful than I, the rock?” he thought.

He looked down and saw far below him the figure of a stonecutter.”

Originally published on Prism Book Alliance on January 16, 2016

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

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