A picture falls from between the leaves of the book. She looks at the photograph and smiles involuntarily, taken, just for a moment, back to that day. They look so happy. That necklace… the colour of her eyes, he’d said when he gave it to her…
It had been a beautiful morning, mild for the time of year but with enough of a chill in the air to make the climb pleasant. He had never taken her there before, though she had seen the hill from a distance and he had told her why it held such a special place in his heart. She understood that. There were places that held her heart too.
They had walked up the wooded slopes hand in hand and he had shared memories of a childhood long gone, painting vivid images with his words, telling his boyhood fantasies built around a landscape of dreams.
They had sat on a wall at the top of the hill, looking across the wide valley, laughing. Happy. The photograph taken at arm’s length… two faces alight with love and joy.
Long ago, now. Lost. A memory as fragile and precious as the petals of the rose pressed between the pages… there had been a bouquet once… She had been happy once. For a little while. Still she smiles, though the tears come. They always come. It is just a photograph…
We tell stories all the time. Whether we are recounting our day round the table with our families, or speaking of times long past or even dreams yet to come. We use them to share information about things, people, places that matter to us; to convey, perhaps the emotions we have felt and the events we have experienced… to frame them so that we can share more than words, so that we can evoke a resonant emotional response from our listeners and bring them beyond mere knowledge of facts to a place of understanding.
The accumulation of knowledge is akin to owning an encyclopaedia. It is a database for reference, for the collating of information. We turn to this database constantly in order to move through the world, navigating its difficulties and hurdles, making our decisions based on facts and figures learned and stored against future need. Yet it is pretty tasteless fare.
Do we actually learn anything at all, other than the facts themselves, from this accumulation of knowledge alone, no matter how much we may specialise in any given area? I don’t think we do.
We only learn from it when the imagination and the emotions become involved in the process, because it is these that bring knowledge to life and transmute it into understanding.
Even with the most basic of examples we can see how that works… Your mother told you not to touch because it would burn. You know it is ‘hot’. Yet you place a finger in the flame. It is hot, it burns, you will not deliberately choose to do it twice. Knowledge told you to avoid the flame and you made a choice based on experience. Yet it is only because you have now felt the heat of the fire, remember how it felt and almost without thinking imagine it happening again, calling up that mental picture, that you will not only avoid the flames yourself but make every attempt to protect those in your care from having to experience it for themselves. It is an understanding born of experience.
Here too, the mental image painted on that inner screen tells a story that communicates more than mere facts. Even if we never consider the hows and whys of our storytelling, it is a device we instinctively turn to in order to share understanding.
Medieval churches were painted with images of saints and martyrs, both as inspiration and as warning to a congregation that could not read and did not understand the Latin of the Mass. Images of the love of Christ as Good Shepherd, of the sacrifice on the Cross… of the maw of Hell that awaited sinners and the beauties of Eden that were there for the attainment of the good… Few words were needed in a world where images were rare and the church so rich in them. Add in to this equation the parables and the stories of the saints… stories that engaged emotion and spoke to the people at a level they could understand through their own experience and one can see how the Christian fathers found the way into the hearts and hopes of the common folk.
In the same way the propaganda machines of governments use imagery to insidiously control the masses, whether as obvious as some of the darker passages of human history or the drip-fed propaganda of the media today, each with their own political allegiances and agenda.
Stories and images…especially when combined…have a profound effect on the mind and emotions. If a stranger asked you for money you would undoubtedly say no. If that same stranger tells you how children…just like your own… are suffering from poverty or famine, shows you images… tells you names… you are very likely to have your hand in your wallet without being asked.
Appendix III, The Osiriad