Stories are important not as simple entertainment, but also as education and indoctrination. What we believe happened in the past and the stories we highlight shade our present and influence our future. The best stories not only have a moral, where good triumphs over evil, but engage us intellectually and also emotionally.
This past Tuesday night, President Barack Obama delivered his first State of the Union address for his second term on the floor of the House of Representatives. In attendance were Supreme Court justices, military generals, Cabinet officers, senators, congressmen and guests — but Obama was not talking to the people in the audience as much as he was speaking to the people of our country.
He has to tell his story, to sell his story.
With a Republican-controlled House, the president must appeal to the country as a whole if he is going to accomplish his goals. The best way to move the members of Congress is to move their constituents, the voters who vote them in — and out — of office. The people then press on their representatives regarding the action that they want them to take.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida gave the Republican response to Obama's speech. Written before he knew what Obama was going to say, it takes on themes and policies without being specific.
Both men finished their speeches with the same conclusion: It is our responsibility to write our chapter of our American story.
The importance of stories led Jim Loehr to write "The Power of Story: Rewrite Your Destiny in Business and in Life." "Stories impose meaning on the chaos," he wrote. "They organize and give context to our sensory experiences. ... Facts are meaningless until you create a story around them. ... A story is our creation of a reality; indeed our story matters more than what actually happened."
This focus on words and stories was evident in the closing passages of the speeches by Obama and Rubio.
"We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us, but as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens," Obama said.
"It's a word that doesn't just describe our nationality or legal status.
It describes the way we're made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story."
While Obama focused on the rights and responsibilities of citizens, Rubio focused on the hope our nation gives to people.
"This dream — of a better life for their children — it's the hope of parents everywhere," Rubio said. "Politicians here and throughout the world have long promised that more government can make those dreams come true.
"But we Americans have always known better," he continued. "From our earliest days, we embraced economic liberty instead. And because we did, America remains one of the few places on earth where dreams like these even have a chance.
"Each time our nation has faced great challenges, what has kept us together was our shared hope for a better life.
"Now, let that hope bring us together again. To solve the challenges of our time and write the next chapter in the amazing story of the greatest nation man has ever known."
Obama's close grouped all citizens together, with shared rights and responsibilities. Rubio's close brought Americans together through hope for the future, and an embrace of economic liberty — not government — as the way to solve problems.
It will be interesting to watch and listen as the national conversation about the alternative stories take place and to see how our chapter of the American Story turns out.