06/09/2015 01:37 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2016

Our Stories

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a faraway land, in a castle on top of a hill, lived a beautiful princess... Well, we all know that there must be, somewhere, an equally handsome prince. But we also anticipate a witch, an ogre, or a dragon -- preferably one breathing fire.

Fairy tales are stories for children. Some are for pleasure only, many are morality tales: If you have long hair, the prince may climb it up to the tower and save you. If you are a true princess, you will feel the pea under the stack of mattresses, get awakened by a princely kiss, or fit into a glass slipper. If you go beyond appearances and kiss a frog or love a kind-hearted beast, you will be rewarded with the love of a prince. If you are a child, you can get lost in a wood and almost eaten by a witch or a wolf, climb a giant beanstalk, or be as small as a thumb or as large as a giant.

As adults we still love our stories. Throughout history, stories have been passed on, as oral tradition or as the written word. Our morality tales are in the Bible, the Koran, or the Ramayana. We tell stories around campfires. Our movies and plays tell stories, and our operas sing them.

"Mommy, tell me that story again" is a frequent request. We like to hear the same story over and over because it is comforting to know how it will end. Even new stories tell the same tales: the proverbial boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl; or boy fights off enemies to become a hero and win the girl; or if he doesn't win the girl, he stars in a musical, gets a medal from the president, invents a lifesaving device, saves a child from a burning house, or overcomes some incredible adversity and his team wins the state championship.

We like stories, they enhance our lives, give us heroes to emulate, teach us ways to cope with our issues. We watch sitcoms to hear stories of other people's lives, we see horror films to scare us in order to make us feel good about not having to be scared in our daily lives -- it is happening there, not here. We watch comedies that make us laugh because it also helps us laugh at our own foibles; and we see romantic films to make us dream and hope for some wondrous outcome for ourselves or just to make us happy that love exists and flourishes somewhere. We read scary stories and uplifting ones, biographies and histories, comic books and bodice rippers, and we listen to books on tape while we drive. We have kindles and iPads in order to travel with more books without the burden of having to carry them.

We learn from stories, we live vicariously through stories, we are storytellers and rapt story listeners. Our newspapers are really only stories -- how that game was won, what the president said, what the movie is about, how the conference went, what that medical discovery will do, how someone got hurt or escaped or went to jail. We have pictures to tell stories of celebrations and defeats. We have photos of the latest fashions and natural disasters, of hungry children and famous people. Every day, in print or on the screen, someone is married or divorces, wins the lottery, fights a war, or hopes for peace. Every day, someone is born, someone is ill, recovers, or dies. Every day, we are admonished, harangued, given advice and recipes for our kitchens and our lives. We are told to buy or to save, to meditate or to travel, to eat low-carb or high-protein diets, to keep up with news or to turn off the TV.

Our newspapers, books, magazines, and TV screens are like large classrooms, from which we keep learning whether it is the latest news or the latest gossip, our brains feed on continuous information. It is a way of staying in touch and now more than ever we do so through Facebook and tweets.

We are a people who live and learn by stories. We have our own morality plays, and so I would like to end with my own morality tale, which I like to tell myself when I feel I don't do enough to save the world -- or if not the world, someone who may need a little help.

One day, after a storm, a little boy is standing at a beach littered with hundreds of dying starfish tossed up by the waves. As he starts throwing them back in, an old man is watching him and says: "Little boy, what you are doing won't matter; you will never be able to save them all."

To this the little boy replied: "But to each one that I throw back, it matters."

And so it is -- please tell me another story; it can be one I heard before, like the one about the little boy and the starfish.