Stories are powerful tools for personal exploration and growth. Lessons learned from stories provide an emotional impact that deepens our hearts and an intellectual clarity that opens our minds, allowing us to capture feelings and insights that may have historically been out of our reach. We are affected by stories in such a strong way because we generally view our own lives as narratives with ourselves in the starring role. Therefore, it is easier to edit and change our storylines when it is just a simple transfer of life lessons from one narrative to another. We identify, to a certain degree, with the hero of a story and see how that character’s experiences align with our own. We gain strength because we now have a type of role model that we can emulate rather than attempting to apply a dry concept or idea to our lives without any context.
I often use Chassidic stories in my therapeutic practice because I see how it makes a message more real for the client. For instance, here is a story from the Baal Shem Tov – the founder of the Chassidic movement – that I frequently relate:
There once was a king who ruled over a large and prosperous kingdom. The citizens were happy because the king provided security and ample opportunities for livelihoods. They had known peace for many long years. The only discord in the kingdom came from the fact that the king and queen had no children. The people were sad for the royal family, but also concerned about their future because there was no one to continue the king’s legacy. Beside that however, the kingdom proceeded peacefully from one day to the next.
One day, however, a royal proclamation was announced that created a huge stir in the kingdom. The king had decided to grant private audiences to anyone in the kingdom who wanted to meet him. This was especially shocking because the king had always ruled at a distance. The people never saw him closer than when he spoke from an upstairs window of the palace or when he drove by in his carriage. He had always been beloved but never in a personal way. The king set the date and no one could think of anything else until it arrived.
The day dawned bright and sunny and the people flocking to the king were amazed to see a huge fair set up around the palace. It was part circus and part carnival - providing a month’s worth of food, games, entertainment, sports, jugglers, fire-eaters, and exotic animals. No one had ever seen anything like it. The majority of the people never got passed the fair and spent the day in blissful merriment.
However, a small group remembered that they were there to see the king and moved through the carnival and across the drawbridge. When they arrived in the king’s courtyard their eyes were blinded by light reflecting off countless precious gems and gold coins strewn on the ground in front of them. Guards were stationed all around the courtyard and they motioned that the people could take whatever they could carry. The people ran around hectically, stuffing immense fortunes into their pockets. When they could simply carry no more, they struggled home to count their loot.
However, an even smaller group remembered that they were there to see the king and moved through the courtyard and entered the king’s antechamber. This room was filled with sorcerers and magicians practicing their arcane arts and willing to teach anyone who wanted to know how to change the course of nature, conjure spirits, brew love potions, and formulate curses. All those remaining spent the rest of the day learning how to become sorcerers – except for one.
One lone soul opened the door to the king’s room and walked in. The sight of the king and queen sitting on their thrones in all their majesty triggered great trembling and fear. The king arose, left his dais, and embraced the person warmly. Then the king stepped back and said, “My kingdom is yours.”
A joyful and consistent pursuit of meaningful life goals demands that we stay connected to the Source of All. And because our days are filled with a million concerns and worries, distractions and transitory pleasures, we must always focus on our ultimate objectives. As they used to say in the 60’s, “You’ve got to keep your eyes on the prize.”
A narrative like this brings this message home in a powerful and persuasive way because we automatically identify with the hero of the story and feel motivated to make the lessons real in our own lives. An archetypal tale like this can ennoble us by showing that our lives too can be spent in a higher pursuit of greatness. It can kick us into different ways of viewing ourselves and our worlds, giving us the strength to accomplish what G-d sent us to do. Therefore, we should challenge ourselves to view stories as not just entertainment, but as real vehicles for growth and transcendence. This will certainly help us push through whatever barriers are constricting our lives.