The first time I cried over what’s happening in Ukraine was a few days after the initial invasion–when my husband and I went to see the latest movie reboot of Cyrano, with Peter Dinklage.
As it has for many of us, the Ukrainians’ plight has been chewing a hole in my gut since Russia began their unprovoked aggression. But their situation hit me with visceral immediacy when I watched soldiers in the film, on the eve of what they know is a doomed suicide mission, write letters to their loved ones back home.
It’s making me tear up even now as I write this. Not because the scene was so well executed (though it was), but because it put me, directly and empathically, inside the skin of a people determined to fight together for their homes and country and freedom against an unjust attack and an army that far outguns and outnumbers them. It made me feel Ukrainians’ fierceness, their incredible resourcefulness and grit, their heroism.
That’s the power of story.
Ideas and information may be the necessary elixir of life, but story is the delivery device that gives them potency. There’s a reason propaganda is one of Putin’s most powerful tools.
Stories are what make ideas palatable and digestible. They draw us intimately in and engage our emotions. We filter them through the lens of our common human experience. And storytellers are the ones who bring these human stories to life for us.
European leaders dragged their feet on putting economic and political pressure on Russia as Putin’s forces pressed down on Ukraine…until an emotional phone call with Zelensky telling the stories of his people—their situation, their suffering, their heroism—moved them literally to tears and almost immediately prompted action.
[If you want to take action of your own, here are links to how to help the Ukrainian people.]
Story has such power that those who fear dissent for their ideas burn and ban books—like the Nazis during the Holocaust, or more recently the Texas lieutenant governor who interceded to stop the authors of Forget the Alamo from talking in an event at the state history museum about the extensively verified and supported research in their book that debunks the “American heroism” myth of the Alamo in favor of its less flattering and more troubling truths about our nation’s history.
They know the power of story and tried to silence it.
We’re increasingly seeing that power demonstrated lately in attempts in school districts across the nation to ban books—those that offer views of a world and of people that may not conform to a certain group’s rigid definitions of what is “acceptable.” Because they know the power of story to open people’s minds and empower them. To educate them. To spur them into action. To change the world.
[If you want to take action to combat this most recent book banning, try this ingenious idea from author Kim Bullock.]
- Story can make sure we never forget the lessons of history, the way that The Diary of Anne Frank has brought home the horrors of the Holocaust to an entire world and generations of people who didn’t live through them firsthand. Or how Ruta Sepetys’s latest, I Must Betray You, brings to life the little-known youth-driven Romanian Revolution that rose up against Ceaucescu’s 24-year reign of oppression and terror against his people—another story that brought me to tears over the current crisis in Ukraine, with its painful parallels.
- Story connects us. It unites us. It frames our world through a lens that allows us to see our own lives more clearly—to reassess, to rethink, to consider. Even if its effect is only to entertain and offer escape, story holds power—how many of us have been binge-watching “comfort shows” like Ted Lasso or Schitt’s Creek during the pandemic for solace and hope during these uncertain and unsettling times?
- Story can change the world. It’s not coincidental that marriage became legal for everyone, for example, only after shows like Ellen and Will and Grace brought gay people right into our living rooms, made us see that people are people, love is love, and civil rights are civil rights.
Do you remember Amanda Gorman standing up on that stage during the last presidential inauguration speaking the truths of her heart with all the passion and conviction of her soul? Do you remember the impact of that—perhaps on you, and certainly on so much of the world as it resonated with so many and the power of her ideas came through in her words and her conviction?
Gorman spoke of her own thoughts and her own experiences and her own perspective, and yet it became universal, resonant to so many. She has spoken of her fear of public speaking, her doubts about this poem, and the fact that she almost even canceled this historic appearance. But she found her courage, and her story mattered and it made a difference.
It’s easy to discount our own stories. To discount our voice. It’s easy to lose faith in ourselves, or to compare ourselves to panoramic, epic, world-altering stories and think, What’s the point of mine? What do I have to say?
Your story may not spur a revolution. It may not spark a wave of social change. It may not even change a single life.
But it may have an impact—an important one. It may make people think. It may make them reconsider an entrenched belief. It may help them understand or cope with something going on in their own lives. One of the most affecting letters I ever received about my work was from a woman who told me that my Breakup Doctor books got her through chemo. Once, at the end of a show I was in during my acting days, I saw a man in the audience on his feet and applauding—the only one standing—tears streaming down his face.
Those are the two most meaningful experiences I’ve had in my creative life. For just that one moment, that reader, that audience member, experienced something in response to a story I helped put into the world. We shared a connection.
I’m writing this post more than a week before it will run in the blog, and by the time it appears I don’t know what will have happened to the people of Ukraine who are so valiantly fighting for their country, their homes, their freedom, and their lives. By the time you read this they may have lost all of it.
But Lin-Manuel Miranda had it right in Hamilton: Despite who lives, who dies…it’s who tells their story who will keep them alive and make sure the world knows the meaning of their fight, their valor…their sacrifices.
There are heroes on the front lines, like Zelensky and his Ukrainian people, who fight the literal fight in their effort to change the world. And there are the warriors who help those stories reach the world.
You are the storytellers. You have the power to affect the world no matter how small or grand your story. Tell it. It matters.
Thanks for reading my effort to make sense of what’s happening in the world right now. Story also creates community, and I’m grateful all of you are part of mine.