The Moment, Frozen and Explored: On the Power of Storytelling

The human experience is inimitable. What each human experiences in a given moment can never in it’s entirety be experienced by another. It is far too nebulous. Each and every second of our life is informed by our entire life prior to that moment; upbringing, schooling, family, friends, life events, wins, losses; all of these shape every moment of our life.  Our senses imbue our life history with realism; everything we feel, smell, see, hear combines with our life history to create a single moment in our life. Each piece of clothing, strand of hair, movement of bodies, echoes of voices, meld together into a moment. And time provides us with a stream of moments, linked together and unified. This is the human experience, a symphony of internal and external structures, experiences, and events. But even though the human experience is inimitable, similarity in experience is the basis of empathy, and empathy is the basis of compassion, and compassion is the basis of all good interaction.

It is here where stories thrive. They hold the capacity to convey empathy. They do so by virtue of the authority that an author holds. An author is free to spend as long as they like exploring a moment. They are not confined by time. Stories can be set over minutes, years, decades or even millennia. But in any case, the author has the power to freeze a moment, and explore the microcosms of the human experience. For example, if in a story a character is bereaved, the author can explore the emotions of the character, their life story, their physical state, their environment etc., all contained within a moment. In doing so, the author can evoke empathy from the reader – empathy which leads to compassion. The author can peak into the unfathomable depth of the human experience, and use this as a platform for a shared experience. In this capacity, stories hold the potential to inspire vivid action, based upon empathy.

Perhaps this is why the Quran features so many stories. We are drawn to and inspired by the common humanity between ourselves, the Prophets and the pious – and this spurs us to action. Take the story of Yusuf; Surah Yusuf takes us from Yusuf’s childhood, all the way to his kingship. But throughout this grand, sweeping tale, the moment is often frozen; when the wife of the Aziz attempts to seduce Yusuf, his exact words are recorded; when he is in prison, his conversation with prisoners is frozen. The moments of Yusuf’s life are explored. And aren’t these moments inspiration to act, to avoid zina, to give dawah, and to act righteously? In these details, when the moment is frozen, we draw inspiration from them, because in the exploration of a moment, we find empathy.

Yet another example in found in Surah Taha; during Musa’s confrontation with the Magicians, we are told that after seeing the ‘magic’ of the magicians, Musa hesitated within himself. But God reassured him that he will be victorious. Again, the moment is frozen; we know now that as Musa watched a flurry of ‘snakes’, he felt a clutch of uncertainty within himself. Later on in Musa’s life, we see Musa grab Haroon’s head and beard out of anger. Uncertainty and anger; two emotions uncovered by freezing the moment.

We also see a similar exploration of emotion with the Prophet. Much of the Quran is God speaking to the Prophet, and we can understand from God’s words what the Prophet must be feeling. Take Surah Kawthar for example; the first verse is incredibly emphatic, using multi-layered techniques to strongly declare, that the Prophet has been given abundance. What must the Prophet be feeling for God to emphasise this with such force? Loneliness at the death of his child; rejected at the spiteful words of his enemies. Surah Yaseen reinforces this; it opens by telling the Prophet that indeed he is of the rightly guided. This is an obvious thing to say, but the gravitas with which it is said indicates that the Prophet was in need of consoling. In Surah Kahf, we find God rhetorically asking the Prophet that would he destroy himself out of grief if his people do not believe. Here we see the immense compassion of the Prophet, leading to grief. The Prophet’s life is frozen, and the moment explored, throughout the Quran.

And thus we see the power of narrative; the authority to freeze a moment, explore the complexities of the human experience, and shackle it to our own experiences. This empathy born out of this links the human experience to another. Herein lies the power of storytelling.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Alina says:

    “The human experience is inimitable”. How very true. Maybe given this human experience it is easy to develop the protagonist syndrome (that you later coin in a different article).

    “The similarity in experience is the basis of empathy, and empathy is the basis of compassion, and compassion is the basis of all good interaction” is a powerful message to learn from.

    The power of narrative and good storytelling to explore the complexities of this human experience is something that the ancient Arabs were quite well versed at.They would travel far and wide in caravans to import stories back to their dwelling. An example of good storytelling is the Arabian A Thousand and One Nights where the power of narrative works to save the storyteller’s life.

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    1. Thanks again for your comment Alina.

      Yes indeed, protagonist syndrome is quite easy to develop.

      I think stories definitely have a very special role for humans – every society has had some iteration or form of stories. Whether that be stories publicly read for entertainment in Ancient Rome (e.g. Livy’s Stories of Rome), or Hollywood, humanity has never abandoned stories.

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