This article was written by my husband following many discussions between us about the power of story telling. You might wonder what this has to do with the veterinary profession? It has an awful lot to do with empathy and connection, whether it is the stories we tell ourselves about a situation (“all clients are morons”) or the stories we use to explain complex ideas to people (“Facts tell, stories sell”), so please read on…
“Once upon a time there was a little boy who lived in a cottage in a wood, as they so often seem to do. Every night after saying a quiet prayer to whichever God had annoyed him least during the day, he would hop happily into bed and await his favourite part of bed-time: the bed-time story.
These stories always came out of a huge, leather-bound old book which contained between its time-darkened covers more worlds than he ever knew existed, and seemed to light up the whole room when it was opened. In fact the only thing that the open book lit was the boy’s own face, even if somebody else were reading it to him. There were stories about…”
No, wait, that’s not why we’re here – but did you want to find out what happened next, just for a second? That’s great, if you did. You were beginning to buy into the story and see the world from somebody else’s perspective and that’s something that’s really important, yet seems to be happening less and less all the time.
Stories fire the imagination in a way that nothing else really does. Imagination is something that’s just for young kids, though, isn’t it? Just happily sitting there and inventing a world, populating it with action figures or completely invisible creatures and then having them do whatever comes to mind? Why would any adult, or even older kids, waste time doing that when there’s a world full of films and TV and games and Instagram?
I’d like to argue that stories, imagination and play are an important part of everyone’s life, not just something for young children, and in fact might even have special relevance for vets. It’s just my opinion, not a researched position or anything, but hear me out and then feel free to tell me why I’m wrong in the comments. This isn’t intended to be a statement of fact, but a starting point for discussion.
Why are stories important?
If you go back in history, or go to traditional places like central or far eastern Asia today, there is a tradition of storytellers. They’re popular with children, of course, but also with adults. They might use song, or puppets, or shadows, or just sit and tell a tale but the idea is the same: these people are repositories of cultural history going back in some cases for thousands of years. The kids come for the tall tales and the show, the adults to feel a part of their ancestral culture. What the stories are is by-the-by, the important point is that this type of storyteller – and in some cases the same stories – have been around for millennia. To have survived that long there has to be something worth keeping alive; society has to see value in there somewhere.
Watch the faces of the storytellers’ audiences. Especially in the kids but probably also a lot of the adults, they’re rapt. Wide-eyed, mouth open, they’re hanging on the storyteller’s every word. The real world around them no longer exists for them, all that matters is whatever’s happening in the story. They’ll laugh, sometimes cry, hold their breath in fear or anticipation… they’re not just listening to words and judging whether the sequence of events is acceptably realistic, they’ve bought into the story and what happens to the hero or heroine and their nemesis really matters. After the story’s finished they’ll keep feeling happy, or sad, or excited, or whatever it was that the storyteller intended for quite a while afterwards – and this is the key: they feel the hero’s story. In a word, they’re showing empathy, the ability to not simply acknowledge what somebody else’s feelings might be in a detached way, but to actually share in them.
Empathy is powerful enough in itself, but the power of stories goes further. A lot of old tales have a moral element that’s still very much around in today’s much simpler versions. You’re introduced to the goodie and the baddie in act one, the goodie suffers some kind of setback in act two to show how bad the bad guy really is, and then finally wins in act three with the good guy saving the princess/world/whatever and the bad guy getting his comeuppance. If any of these elements are missing it just feels wrong, somehow, because the formula’s so well-known. But so what? Well, imagine yourself in a situation where you’re not continually bombarded with information from all sides as everyone is today. External influences are therefore rarer. You’ve listened to a story – fill in the details yourself – and come away having enjoyed it but that’s as far as it goes. At some point in the future you’re in a situation where you could make a quick, easy win at something if you just bend the rules a little; theft, betrayal, deceit, a little lie… but something at the back of your mind is telling you not to. You might not even remember hearing the story of when the prince’s little brother did whatever it was you were beginning to contemplate doing, but deep down in your memory something’s telling you not to because you’ll eventually be found out.
That’s a very simplistic example but it tends to be the simple ones that stick. A well-crafted story will suck the audience in and make them feel the events in a way that sticks in the memory much more than a straight-out list of rules. Social rules can so easily be passed around in stories by making people feel the grief of the victim, feel the perpetrator’s triumph turning into fear, feel the world’s satisfaction at the eventual exposure and punishment of the bad guy. Let’s put it another way: do you remember some patient adult explaining to you in a clear, simple way why lying is bad? I’m guessing not, even though it’s almost certainly happened. Do you remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? Betcha. Do you remember feeling the glee as he got eaten (and the ramifications of continually lying were brought home in a way he’d remember for the crunchily brief rest of his life)? The calm, logical list meant nothing. The story, though… that one stuck.
Stories are the bedrock of imagination
Stories and imagination go hand-in-hand, and are an unbelievably powerful way of learning about things that the listener or reader has no personal experience of in a way that really connects because it has a personal emotional impact, if the listener truly empathises with the characters in the story. Imagination, a whole separate area which I’m not really talking about here, is vital for… well, for humanity in general. Imagination is the power behind “what if”. What if I hit those sealed nuts with this rock? What if the trick with the nuts also works on heads? What if we attack the other tribe while they’re asleep? What if we could travel to other star systems, physics be damned? What if I did what he did, but with this improvement? What if we just did this, so that physics didn’t have to be damned? (If you’re one of the people who say that imagination is just for kids, you’re disqualified from answering any of these questions.) Each of these thoughts, when it occurred for the first time, changed history and happened only because of one individual’s imagination, the ability to mentally picture something that has never existed.
Here’s where it gets interesting for vets. I’ve often had conversations with Sarah about empathy and never really managed to end up agreeing and I suspect it’s because we’re talking about slightly different things which are, I suspect, partly reinforced by some of the studies on vets and their emotional responses. From what I gather, these often talk about the extreme difficulty that vets have, especially new graduates, in dealing with the kind of emotionally-charged situations that they find themselves in daily as part of their job. As a defence and survival mechanism, a vet has to be able to switch empathy off if they’re to survive in their career. Being aware, in an abstract sense, that telling the widow Miggins that her 24-year-old terrier Benjie really needs to go to Devon might cause her some level of distress is pretty obvious. Standing in the same room, being the one to break this to her, seeing her face do nothing for a second until the realisation hits and then start to crumple as she understands that her only companion for two decades, who is sitting on the table looking up at her in full trust, is going to leave her alone in the world by her conscious choice… I’m tearing up writing this, yet it’s something that a vet does every day. Anyone exposed to this surely has to end up numbed, or leaving the profession to maintain their sanity, or become suicidal, or callous to the point of being a sociopath.
And yet, assuming you do manage to turn the empathy down – or more likely off – how do you get it back again? Is it just as easy as mentally shrugging work mode off? I honestly don’t know, I’m the other end of the spectrum, but it’s an interesting question to ask (and, again, answer in the comments if you feel strongly one way or the other about this!) Few people seem to read stories any more so let’s go for an easier question: when was the last time you cried at a movie? What was the last one that made you still catch your breath months after you saw it, when you remembered a particular scene? Not just a momentary excitement waiting to see whether the hero was going to get back up (because of course they will), but something that elicited a true, long-term emotional response. Movies, modern stories, are usually about extreme events otherwise they wouldn’t catch your attention but extreme doesn’t have to mean nasty. When was the last time you felt real, lasting joy at something that happened to a character in a movie? When, in other words, was the last time you showed empathy with a person even if you knew the whole setup was imaginary?
I believe that this actually gets harder as time goes on and movies become more visually realistic. You no longer have to suspend belief to accept what you see on screen, it’s all just spoon-fed in an absolutely authentic way that, crucially, leaves you with nothing to add. With older movies you had to go from a representation of something on screen and pretend – imagine – that you couldn’t see the strings on the flying saucer or the fact that the monsters were all roughly six feet high, bipedal and the spikes wobbled slightly if they turned too fast. Older still and we’re back in black and white which is even further away from reality and leaves you to create most of the world inside your head, making it fit your personal reality much better. A book takes this to the extreme leaving you to recreate – imagine – the whole of the world. A modern effects-laden blockbuster is visually stunning, a triumph of capability, and much less involving as a result.
Still, movies are the modern equivalent of the traditional storytellers and are probably the most common way of checking and rejuvenating your empathy abilities so I’m going to finish up with talking about a few movies and a game. The movies are all quite old so don’t worry if you’ve never heard of them but, please, look them out and spare an evening, they’re all worthwhile in very different ways. They all show not just the power of a story, but the skill – artistry in fact – of a good storyteller. A person – in a movie’s case mostly the director – who can keep their audience enthralled for couple of hours and leave them with a lasting memory, not just a short impression of “cool effects!”. (Enthralled, by the way, doesn’t mean just “really interested”; that’s how it’s most often used now but not the original meaning. It is to become utterly and unbreakably under somebody’s absolute power. A good story and a good storyteller can do this – the saying ‘to keep an audience enthralled’ is more than it appears). There can be few easier ways of exercising your atrophied empathy skills than just getting into a really good, gripping story that’s about the characters rather than the FX department. I’m just offering these few as examples that, for me, had a real impact.
First up, as it deserves to be, is Casablanca. A fairly simple story of hope in Nazi-occupied Morocco, set – and filmed – in the early 1940s. It’s the old classic of boy meets girl, girl leaves boy, boy learns that girl had a secret, girl wanders into boy’s bar where he’d gone to teach cynicism at university level, etc. That old chestnut. The way the story is told, though, is a long way from today’s movies. You’re learning slowly about all the characters all the way through, and before too long you want to find out what’s going to happen to them as much as they do. The key scene for me isn’t the iconic ending where Ilsa find out… no, watch it yourself. The key is about two thirds of the way through, where a young French woman Yvonne who only has a few seconds’ screen time in the whole film is singing the Marseillaise in the bar. I shed a tear every single time I see this – and I watch it regularly. It’s not because of what’s happening on screen, it’s entirely down to the masterful storytelling, including environmental storytelling, which gives you all you need to know about her but only if you use your imagination to join the dots. All you know is that she’s the kind of woman who will be faithful to any man just as long as he pays her bills, whether that’s for a day or a year – and even that’s subtly done – and she’s seen on the arms of Nazi officers and despised by her countrymen. That’s all you’re given, but that’s all you need. It’s an occupied country, she’s young and pretty but doesn’t seem to have much beyond that, and most people in town are refugees desperately trying to escape to America. She’s a patriot who has been left no choice but to literally sleep with the enemy. She hates herself more than the other French citizens hate her but even patriots have to eat. In the few seconds you see her singing her national anthem in defiance of the Nazis in the bar her expression is so intense that you can see years of self-hate being cleansed. For those few seconds she can hold her head high, belt out her country’s national anthem standing right next to the Nazi that’s paid for her company for the evening in about the only act of defiance she can use without being executed – and bear in mind that this was filmed in 1942 and that the Nazis really were in control of France. Two seconds of screen time is all it takes to get all that across, with nothing more than her expression and your imagination and empathy, both for the character and the actress.
An extremely honourable second has to be the classic western “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”. It’s a long one, with an intricately woven story that’s a whole load of clichés strung together but so masterfully done that it’s all about wondering what happens after the next inevitable reversal of fortune, due sometime in the next few minutes. As a long, slow film, you have plenty time to get to slowly know the characters – fairly simple ones – but what you learn is that they’re all on a knife-edge of one kind or another and fate has woven them so closely together that the three are inseparable. More than individuals they are different, opposing, aspects of human behaviour and while only one can triumph, that one could be any of them. The key scene for me in this one is the ending; a long ending for a long movie. Practically nothing happens for most of it apart from the music getting more and more intense, and the music is a huge part of this film, until the one, final, fatal moment when… Again, I watch this regularly and I completely instinctively stay absolutely motionless, almost unbreathing with the suspense of the moment, all the way through this final showdown. Every time. Without empathy you’d just be bouncing up and down going “BORED NOW! SHOOT HIM ALREADY!”. With empathy, it’s not just some gunfighter’s life on the line, it’s yours and when the moment comes there’s an overwhelming wave of simply being glad to have survived.
A brief detour into games. Yes, somebody talking about tradition and books and stories plays video games (much to Sarah’s bemusement). If a movie can transport you to another world even though you’re a passive observer, imagine what a game can do, where you’re not just watching what somebody else does but actively controlling them, being them. Senua’s Sacrifice has to be mentioned in an article talking about stories and empathy. Game-wise it’s a very simple swordplay thing. Story-wise though it’s utterly harrowing. A young woman with mental health issues living in a viking-era village is shunned as a freak. She’s brought out of herself by a stranger – a stranger she falls for, who treats her as a human and stands by her, and who gives his life in her place at a time when she is at the depths of despair. Along the way you find out more and more horrifying details of her past as she slowly learns that she’s far stronger than she thought possible. Remember, you’re not passively watching this woman’s story, you’re being the woman and having the story happen to you, actively taking part in it. If you haven’t played this but would like to, skip the rest of the paragraph! And then this game does something remarkable – with no warning whatsoever, it breaks this bond at a moment of incredible stress. You learn that you’re not Senua but a separate entity and that she trusted you, she put her life and the soul of her love into your hands, and her dying thought is that you let her down. She does this simply by making eye contact with you, the player, and it comes as an emotional suckerpunch that, for me at least, was literally breathtaking. Mechanically, the game is simple to the point of being trivial. Emotionally, anyone who claims to have finished this without sobbing simply isn’t a functioning human.
The last movie is an old favourite called The Princess Bride. Yes, as I’m sure you can guess, it’s a completely unashamed fairy story made in the 1980s. The story, as you’d probably expect, is obvious from the start and largely nonsense but that’s deliberate. For the first fifteen minutes it feels hammy and overdone and most definitely something that’s suitable for ages six and under. The movie’s opening scene is a young boy ill in bed who’s being told a story by his grandfather and really isn’t interested in princesses, swordsmen and happily ever after. It’s a fairy story for people who are too old for fairy stories. In other words, dear and respected reader, you, who are probably older than ten and will definitely agree with the boy in the film. That is, until the nonsense of the story kicks in, you start to smile, then laugh, then care about the cast of bipedal clichés despite the story… A bit of a cult following, this one, I admit – but if you’re the kind of person who thinks they’re too old for fairy stories this might just prove you wrong.
Where have I been going with all of this? Do yourself a favour and don’t dismiss the simple, ancient joys of stories, imagination and play. They’re a vital part of human learning and social and personal skills and absolutely not something that’s just for young kids, despite it being taught out of them ever younger. If you’re a vet then empathy is something that you absolutely need to be able to control, but I don’t believe that eliminating it entirely is any better for you in the long run. Stories can give you a safe environment where you can learn to switch the empathy back on at will, or release the pent-up emotions of the day. You can use stories, whether about this world or entirely fictitious ones, to control your mood, or trigger specific emotions when you might be in desperate need of them. The power of stories can let you imagine a better world and then, just maybe, start making it become real.