I had taken an early morning flight from Sydney to Melbourne and while I don’t really like orange juice I was bored. So I peeled back the silver foil and drank from the plastic cup on my tray. Later that day a radio announcer caught my attention with a public health announcement that “all travelers on flight #xxx from Sydney to Melbourne who drank any of the orange juice offered on the airplane should call a doctor immediately.” That was three decades ago. But this COVID-19 pandemic reminds me of the feelings I felt that day. At first I was in denial. I don’t trust panic, and I don’t trust people who tell me to panic. (Now I can see it was prudence not panic.) I did not call a doctor and adopted a wait and see attitude. Then, when I couldn’t concentrate on my work I got angry. Poor me, I was minding my own business but NO…people who made mistakes (or worse) had impacted my life and now I faced the burden of going to see a doctor. It was the next stage, bargaining, when I finally did call a doctor. The second the doctor insisted on coming straight to my apartment to give me a shot, I moved on to depression. All this time I was treating this danger as if it were a made up tragedy. But dammit, it was real. To this date I don’t know what was in that orange juice. I do know that even with the doctor’s injection I spent two days in a special hell of barfing and diarrhea. The emotions I felt in that one day are very similar to my journey of acceptance regarding COVID-19. I share this story, because I think my experience may have led me to acceptance just a bit faster. Every minute, every hour, we spend in denial, anger, bargaining, or depression puts people we love at risk. If you are still stuck in one of these stages…I highly recommend acceptance. Stay home. Stop bargaining to give yourself permission to attend one more gathering. It took me six hours to call a doctor. If I’d reached acceptance earlier, I might have saved myself some pain. I think the same goes for COVID-19.
This is from the woman who wrote “Diet for a Small Planet” back in 1971. That book started a conversation that is now a vital movement to reduce overconsumption of meat and increase plant-based consumption.
Her latest book Daring Democracy: Igniting Power Meaning and Connection for the America We Want correlates strongly with my own research into the narratives men and women recruit when deciding how to allocate resources and how to design power structures. Here is a quote from my proposal:
“Because female narratives don’t always follow male narratives about power we can better see how current systems might leave women in positions of power feeling powerless. Suddenly it makes sense that women don’t just want more power, we want to change the way power works.”
I’ve been gathering true stories men and women tell about their personal experiences with power. And there is a theme. Masculine narratives tend to define power as morally neutral. Women preface their stories with clear distinctions of good power versus bad power. Francis Moore Lappe’s new book basically says the same thing without pointing fingers at gender differences. Here is another quote from her in the NYTimes article:
“We took Charles Darwin, who in “Descent of Man” says that in primal tribal societies everything was judged good or bad solely as it affected the welfare of the tribe, and reduced him to survival of the fiercest.”
Personally I think it is important to highlight that women are much more likely to live according to narratives that address the moral nature of power. Mainly because I want to undermine the way women’s narratives are routinely discredited (attacked) as too emotional, unfocused, weak or my personal pet peeve as “utopian” by those who can only see through the lens of toxic male narratives. I think we need to do more to validate women’s narratives in order to strengthen and amplify women’s voices.
So … I think gender matters when we talk about these competing narratives. What do you think?
Sometimes I hear a story that I just have to share. This one came from my mother, Harriet. In this picture taken last week, you see Mom standing with the guys who just repaved her driveway. She saved for two years to repave that driveway and just had to have a picture to celebrate. I particularly like the guys’ “Kick Some Asphalt!” sweat shirts. For people who can’t find stories to tell, I recommend my mom’s example of turning ordinary life into story worthy events.
So here’s the story: Last Sunday Mom went to church at First Presbyterian and then to lunch with a friend. Driving back she decided to visit my “Aunt” Jere a longtime friend who taught me piano lessons and who is now suffering from COPD. On the way to Aunt Jere’s house she passed a woman walking along the road lugging five bags of groceries. Mom told me she just had to turn around. When she pulled up, rolled down her window and asked, “Do you need a ride home?” Without hesitation the woman blurted out “YES!” They both got tickled about her enthusiastic response and once she had placed her grocery bags in the back seat and climbed in the passenger seat, started chatting. The woman looked at mom and said, “Looks like you went to church this morning and got the message!” With equal enthusiasm Mom replied, “I sure did!” It turns out this woman had just missed her bus and if mom hadn’t given her a ride would have had to walk well over a mile with five heavy bags in the Louisiana humidity. As they pulled in her driveway, she summarized her thoughts to my mom, “Yep, the Lord’s just showing off today!”
I think value-in-action stories are much easier to find when we remember to show off our values more often. Happy Holidays and may you find yourself with plenty of opportunties to show off the rich mutual rewards of kindness.
Do your stories have a spiritual message?
Or…perhaps we should ask ourselves what spiritual message do our stories tell? Because all storytelling delivers a spiritual message. The message may be spiritually rich or poor but it is there. And it seems like spirituality has been at the core of storytelling from the beginning. A recent article about newly discovered cave paintings in central Indonesia illustrates what is still a common trope – interpreting humanity through the lens of animal characteristics – from Aesop’s stories about the lion and the mouse to the three little pigs, animals have been recruited represent our values. Stories with animals tend to explore spiritual themes (compassion, courage, conservation) that illustrate the way we struggle to balance our lower and higher natures. Here is a quote from a Dec. 11, 2019 article:
Over forty thousand years ago the urge to tell a story represented far more than a desire for individual gain. Newly discovered images of the earliest example of storytelling featured “therianthropes” – characters that embody a mix of human and animal characteristics. Our storytelling instincts were far less about individual profit and much more about collective wellbeing. We risk a failure of the spirit when we forget this. (as well as a failure to address climate change and other global problems)
I first encountered ancient therianthropes in Museo del Oro in Bogata where solid gold characters blended the characteristics of humans and animal spirits. And more recently, when a friend who has a bad habit of suppressing his creative spirit to please others showed me a small brass tiger he carried in his pocket to remind him to act with courage. What animal spirit would improve the spiritual message in your storytelling?
I just watched the new Budweiser commercial for July 4 this year and I think it is genius. They used story to do good as well as make money. Lately I’ve been disturbed by mechanistic applications of story, but this? This is big picture, risky, embedded with big T Truth and I hope it does what it seems to have been designed to do.
Budweiser invites liberals and conservatives to remember who they are and why they are here, and to have a damn beer fer crissakes. The common good intentions of left and right are symbolized by the conservative cues framing the family of the veteran and his daughter as obviously conservative they add an even heavier handed cues about liberal Hollywood to characterize Adam Driver. Then they dissolve their different POVs with the shared tragedy of both men being wounded before deployment and dealing with pain and survivors guilt.
I try to imagine… what was the dialogue in the conference room when they made the decision
“Should we do it?”
“You are f—ing idealists.”
“It tested well.”
“Screw it, we’re going to do it.”
Of course they tested this ad. I admit preliminary the comments I’ve read are accusatorial jabs from die hard haters from both sides. But I hope that over time, the idea of just sitting down and having a beer comparing what we care about most…will bring some sanity to the current political arena.
If not, I’ll just drink a Bud and try not to worry about it.
Let’s pretend I’m Eve and you are Adam. Don’t worry about what we are or aren’t wearing. So in my hand is this apple, and with it the secret to finding good stories. All yours, free of charge. But, before you take a bite I have to warn you; there is a big downside. This apple is from the tree of knowledge (yep, that one) and each bite can be as difficult as it is joyful. Tiny bites are okay, but tiny bites mean tiny difficulties and tiny joys.
As a general rule, I harbor deep suspicions against anyone who says they have “the answer” to anything. Storytelling took off around the same time my book The Story Factor was published. Probably a coincidence. I wasn’t the only exploding with ideas at the Jonesborough storytelling festival in 1994. In 1998 and 1999 I wasn’t the only one running experiments and writing about stories. But there wasn’t a big crowd, either. I felt complete freedom to explore storytelling without restraint and I had more than enough arrogance to assume I understood what I thought I understood. I mainly sought advice from traditional storytellers although my questions came from psychology, group dynamics, and teaching self-awareness workshops.
It was a lot of work…but I felt pure joy writing about storytelling (except for the editing part, editing sucks). Back then stories were allowed to go anywhere and come from anywhere. It felt like exploring a natural wilderness of surprises. There was no internet to harsh my buzz with numbered lists and so I mapped what felt natural to map, connecting my own dots, for my own reasons: I had a shiny messiah complex and I was out to save the world – share storytelling for good, not evil, and all that.
Anyway, it’s 20 years later and you can’t swing a dead cat in a coffee shop without hitting a storyteller. The neighborhood looks a lot different than it did. I see the equivalent of fancy cars and big malls, secret clubs and Disney story wonderlands with hefty entry fees. My friends call it the “storytelling industrial complex.” Do any of them have “the answer?”
Honestly? Some do. I still like my six stories and I’ve felt “this is it! several times since then. But after twenty years, the “this is it!” moments run together. So…I needed one big thing, something pivotal, basic, primitive, and organic to help organize my thoughts and zero in on really good stories.
It’s not surprising I found my new “unifying theory of story” listening to Joseph Campbell. I was two blocks from my house walking Lucy, when through my earbuds I heard Joseph Campbell tell Bill Moyers that he had revised his opinion that the purpose of myth was to create meaning. His tone got lively as he explained that maybe creation stories prompted it, but in his revised opinion the purpose of myth is to chart what it is to “feel truly alive.”
Who cares about a love story if it doesnt make you feel more alive? Horror stories aren’t interesting unless they remind us how precious life is or validate that you are not alone in your fear, a good mystery offers shared wonder that produces a visceral and physiological change in heart rate, etc. I now think this is the common denominator in all good stories. They remind us we are alive.
The secret to great storytelling is: does this story make me/us feel more alive? It is as simple and as difficult as that. This aliveness seems to happen when opposites touch: life/death, good/evil, rich/poor, dangerous/safe, dark grey/light grey, love/emptiness, beauty/ugliness and the rest. So contrast is key to creating a narrative frame, but there is a big difference between a story that should work and one that does.
Joseph Campbell spoke of the knights on their quest for the Holy Grail “If a path exists in the forest, don’t follow it, for though it took someone else to the Grail, it will not take you there, because it is not your path.”
My advice? I recommend you go take a big juicy bite out of a real apple. Let the juice run down your chin, look at the red, green, brown and white of it and think about what else makes you feel truly alive. Then look for stories that make you feel like that: more alive. When you find it, that’s a good story.