This little lesson on the importance of storytelling was impressed on me by my 5 year-old son with Asperger's. To set it up a bit, my son, Maedhros, has a very hard time going to bed at night. He has some ADHD as well, which commonly goes along with Asperger's in children, and so it's very hard for him to just shut down when bed time comes. He gets a lot of leniency because of that. One night, my husband and I had allowed him to stay up late with us. When we finally insisted that it was time for all of us to go to bed it was around midnight. He still fought us about it. But I put my foot down and insisted he had to go to bed in his room. We went into our room and left him outside in the hallway having a tantrum.
As we lay in bed listening to his shouts for the moment when he would start bringing himself under control, we noticed something interesting. He was shouting something very specific.
"Come on, you guys! You can't!" and "Mom! Dad! Come on, quit eating! Get out of here!" followed by "Mom! Dad! Where are you?" We could tell that he was moving around a lot while saying these things too. Eventually it all clicked, and we realized that he was completely acting out a scene from one of our family's favorite movies: Spirited Away.
(Which, by the way, is a brilliant movie by Hayao Miyazaki that everyone should see regardless of age.)
The particular scene he was quoting word for word is when the heroine, Chihiro, and her parents wander into a sort of resort for the spirit world. The mom and dad find an empty shop full of appetizing foods and start gorging themselves, thinking they can just pay later. But as the sun sets and the spirit world awakens, Chihiro's parents turn into pigs, a punishment for their gluttony, and Chihiro is left scared and alone while strange beings appear all around her.
The connection is obvious. Maedhros was acting the part of Chihiro and my husband and I were obviously the parents who did something stupid, something their kid warned them not to do (in this case, going to bed), and ended up getting into trouble and abandoning their child in a strange and scary world.
But he didn't stop there. He continued the scene up to the point where Chihiro is helped by Haku, one of the few good and friendly spirits in that world.
"Where are my mom and dad? They didn't really turn into pigs did they?"
"You can't see them now, but you will."
He was doing lines for both Chihiro and Haku now, but still clearly identifying with Chihiro. And he finally started to calm down and bring himself under control. His parents may be missing, but he wasn't alone after all. Soon after Haku came into the scene, Maedhros stopped quoting and quietly went into his room and went to sleep.
We couldn't reason with him, we couldn't comfort or reassure him, but the story did. By putting himself in Chihiro's shoes and placing himself inside the story he knew well, he was able to feel the comfort of knowing that Haku would help Chihiro and Chihiro would eventually save her parents and everything would be all right in the end. When nothing else could ease the chaos of his feelings, the story did.
And stories do that for all of us. Not in such a literal and exaggerated way as how a 5 year-old with Asperger's experienced it. But placing ourselves inside the stories we read and watch and participate in helps us to deal with a lot of the daily strife and stress that is part of life. When the characters overcome their obstacles, we feel like we've been there along side them, we get the same thrill and sense of accomplishment and maybe we learn something from how the characters acted and dealt with their problems. Experiencing stories helps us to live life.
That's why being a storyteller, no matter what medium, is an important vocation. It's an integral role in society and deserving of respect. It doesn't even matter that kind of story you're writing. Spirited Away is pure fantasy, but it helped my son in the real world. Stories help people live.