My father argues against the use of clichés, but I’ll get it over with and start with one at the beginning: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Who said this? Who believes it? With a quick google search I found that the phrase is credited to the playwright and novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The now common phrase made its way onto the page in 1839, through his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy.
The play centers on Cardinal Richelieu, a real life bishop who served as an advisor to King Louis XIII. In Act III, Scene II the Cardinal is having a conversation with his page, and they are discussing his options on how to thwart those who are planning to kill the King. As a man of the cloth the Cardinal is sort of limited by the whole, “thou shalt not kill.” And because he still wants to adhere to the Ten Commandments the following conversation ensues:
But now, at your command
Are other weapons, my good lord.
True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Caesars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!
177 years later I’m on a phone that holds millions of stories and none are brought into existence by a pen. The stories I read are typically no longer than 140 characters and visually they last only for a few minutes on the screen. But despite the changes in how information is accessed there is a reason that we still find ourselves quoting a dead guy.
It was a reason that I was reminded of when watching, “How to Win an Election,” an eight-minute documentary that focuses on Mark McKinnon’s experience as a political strategist. He remarks, “successful campaigns tell a story. . .good stories win, campaigns without a story lose.” McKinnon states that the pen is responsible for electing the political figures in our world, and I would go out on a limb to say that the pen has done much more than that.
We quote playwrights such as Edward Bulwer Lytton, and have jobs for people like Mark McKinnon because storytelling is the most powerful tool we have in our hands, and it’s a tool that most people fail to cultivate. Your story, any well crafted narrative, can be used as currency to buy the hearts and minds of those around you. It is our words, it is the stories that we craft, that influence the masses. And with your story you can invest in ideas that are uplifting or you can contribute to that which is hateful.
“Take away the sword, states can be saved without it,” meaning that they can be saved by the pen, but it is my belief that they can also be destroyed by it. Destroyed by narratives that feed off fear instead of hope, which unfortunately seems to be the growing trend in this age. A trend that makes use of archetypes to identify the players who are supposedly, “villains” and those that are cast as “heroes.” It is a type of script that is easy to follow and is a hit with the box office that is our America.
We are vigilantes, robin hoods, but as we try to right the wrongs and steal from those who we deem as unworthy we seem to miss the point. We seem to unknowingly fill out roles that have been cast by the powerful forces that take over our television sets. They want us as their characters, people who can be manipulated into thinking there is one way to see a narrative and there is one way to tie up the ending.
This is a lie. The beauty of this country, of the world, is that there are millions of stories with complex and challenging perspectives. So, what do you do? You search for those stories. The ones that contradict what you believe and contain elements that you have never heard before. You find storytellers all over the world because it’s hard to hate someone, it’s hard to continue ignoring and devaluing groups of people, once you know their story.
Not only should you seek out the stories that are waiting outside of your door, but you should be learning how to write your own. Because everything we are and all that we engage in is based on a story, and sometimes they are rooted in fact and at other times they are works of fiction, but the impression they leave can generally be categorized into two emotional responses: what drives us to do something, and what moves us to do nothing but turn away.
It’s easier to do nothing. In fact, most people count on the fact that you will do nothing and remain quiet because then their voice is the loudest in the room. Don’t let the loudest voice be the one that buys your mind, you are more valuable than that. Instead stand up and answer back with your own story, and all the tales that have inspired you. And then never sit back down.