I had my first kiss on the night of my prom, with a boy I asked because no one at school asked me. I didn't know him, but my father suggested him (!) as he was the son of a family friend and reputed to be a "good kid" and a good dancer--and I was determined that I would get to dance with someone at my prom. He was a year or two older (still is, actually ;-) ), but neither of us were previously experienced in the relationship department.
This somewhat inauspicious beginning should probably have been a sign that our "relationship" was fated not to be. From that first awful kiss (the movies never tell you that if neither of you know what you're doing, your first kiss will probably suck--literally) to the trip to West Edmonton Mall wherein I "snuck" into a bar with him a full two months before my eighteenth birthday (not to drink--just to say I'd been in a bar!), it was three whole weeks of trying new things and trying out the feeling of "dating" someone--before it sputtered out in a complete lack of chemistry.
However, somewhere in those three weeks, we had a movie date. And the movie we went to see was the newly released blockbuster film Braveheart.
I remember walking out of the theatre in astonishment that three hours had passed on the clock--how could it possibly have been that long? My makeup was probably running, and I was having a difficult time processing the emotional impact of the film. (Especially as my date and I did not have communication styles that jived well.) The relationship may have ended soon afterward, but I would rewatch Braveheart many times over the years, and even read the book the movie was based on.
After all, who wouldn't get stirred by Mel Gibson painted blue and delivering an impassioned speech about freedom? Not to mention that it was William Wallace's story of unjustly-destroyed love (in the film--no idea about real history) that sparked masses of Scots to follow him in the fight for independence.
To me, this was a moving story of a man fighting to right injustice and fight oppression. With no Scottish background of my own (that I know of--but I wouldn't bet money on that or anything), calling it "a great movie" was as far as the impact went for me.
Not so long ago, my eleven-year-old paraphrased the famous "They shall not take our freedom" speech in reference to cookies or something equally life-changing. I kind of dropped my jaw and stared at him in amazement.
"Do you even know what that's from?" I asked, knowing that there was no way in this grasshopper-infested paradise that his father nor I had let him watch the movie yet. Had he watched it at a friend's house? And the real question--which mother am I going to have to have a word with?
"Is it, like, 300 or something?" he said.
Whew. "No, it's from Braveheart."
He hasn't even seen the film, and he knows the speech. I'd say that it made an impact on our culture.
And when I just googled the cultural impact of the film, I discovered that the impact on Scotland has been even more profound. Despite the many historical inaccuracies of the film, according to this article, it sparked a renewal of Scottish Nationalism that has resulted in the country nearly voting itself into independence from England not once, but twice, since its release in 1995.
I am pretty sure that reshaping the politics of the modern United Kingdom was nowhere on the agenda of Randall Wallace (the novelist and screenwriter of Braveheart), Mel Gibson (who starred in and directed the movie), nor anyone else on the cast and crew of the film. All they wanted to do was to tell a good story. Oh, and make money.
A story impacting a culture in a major way is not new. From Joseph (of "coloured coat" fame) to Ghandi, Jesus to Mohammed, Homer to Shakespeare, it is the stories we share that bind us--or break us--as a culture. That is why myth is so powerful.
Stories introduce new ideas and concepts in such a way that we are changed without even realizing we have changed. We could go into a theatre firmly ensconced in our sense of the world and come out questioning our views on anything from the food we eat (Supersize Me), to the forces that shape our cultures (JFK, Snowpiercer), to whether wearing diamonds is even moral (Blood Diamond), to the very fabric of reality as we know it (The Matrix) or our concepts of God (The Shack).
Earlier this month, I attended a writing conference wherein I could have had a thoughtful and intense discussion on the impact of story on culture with any one of hundreds of writers who take the power of their pen very seriously.
Or who don't. Because some of them just want to have fun and tell a great story.
And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think most writers want to do some of both. But I personally believe that, whether the message is intentional or not, every story can have an impact on the reader--and, in fact, all the best stories do.
The makers of Big Bang Theory probably didn't intend to spark a wave of interest in scientific fields when they developed their concept of writing a sitcom about geeks--they only wanted to bring people joy. (And make money. Let's not forget that. It's hard to survive on joy vapours and laughs.) Yet shows like BBT have propelled "geek chic" into the mainstream culture, and are also partly responsible for an increased number of people pursuing fields in science (according to the special featurette included with the BBT Season 10 DVDs). Quite by accident, they have managed to make being a geek cool.
Conversely, some stories are told with the deliberate purpose of changing your mind. Philadelphia, An Inconvenient Truth, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest all opened conversations that had tremendous cultural impact, and some of those conversations are still going on.
This is all well and good, but how does that relate to you and me?
My story about a first kiss and three hours in a theatre that passed almost as quickly as the relationship I was in might be a fun short before the main event, but no one is going to make that into a book or a movie that's going to change the world.
However, that was a small, nearly insignificant blip on the radar of my life, despite the hype I had built around that first kiss in my mind. Sorry, Teenage Me--it didn't revolutionize my view of the world. It changed me a little--but the things that changed me a lot, like the losses I've gone through and the hard lessons I've had to learn--those are the things that others actually want to hear about. Those are the things that will impact their lives, too.
It seems kind of backwards, doesn't it? We often hide the parts of us that make us seem vulnerable or less than perfect. But it is those parts of ourselves that have the most power to help and influence others' lives for the better.
One of my friends recently publicly opened up about her lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder. She has often felt like she has battled it alone and that there is a great deal of stigma and misunderstanding about the condition, and wants to spark a discussion and educate people so that others don't have to walk the same lonely road.
Another friend knows that she can help people trapped in abusive marriages--because she was in one. Yet another friend constantly talks about her struggles with food, her weight, and her health as she hops back on the exercise machine.
All of these people share their stories to both be an encouragement and to be encouraged. There is something so attractive about authenticity, and it is often seeing that we are not alone in what we face that inspires us to keep trying, keep putting one foot in front of the other toward our goal.
You might think your story isn't that special, that you have nothing to give. But if you think about it, you'll probably realize that you have already learned some life lessons that others would benefit from. And if not, if you have not yet experienced a loss or obstacle that you had to fight to overcome, give it time. No one is exempt, so you'll have an "inspirational story" of your own at some point. Just remember that, when it happens, the lessons you learn are not meant to be hoarded but to be shared.
Just like William Wallace, who lost the woman he loved and led his people to freedom, you can let your loss be distilled through you and your grief and become a blessing to others walking the path you walked.
Through your pain, you can be a blessing to others. Weird, right?
To answer the question I asked in my title, Yes. Whoever you are, and whatever your story is, your story can change the world. All you have to do is tell it.