TELLING A BETTER STORY: THE PROBLEM
If we, as protagonists in a story, are defined as who we are, what we believe about ourselves, and our internal character, then our problem is where we are, or what we believe about our situation, and is driven by our character and world view. And we all know that every good story has conflict, that there has to be a problem to solve, that the higher the pressure the more interesting the story. So when we communicate in politics, there are all kinds of places we see as the problem in any given situation: everything from ISIS to obesity, and interpretations of the Constitution by the Supreme Court.
I think it’s in this part of the story that our fears, hopes, and dreams live and interact, and that’s why it’s critical to know what we see as the problem in both the stories we live and the stories we tell. If we see ourselves as the hero, who is the villain? If we see ourselves as the activist army, what are we overcoming? If we see ourselves as the victim, who or what is the source of oppression? If we are apathetic, is it because we see “the whole thing” as the problem, as a mess to avoid?
In each of these examples we largely have to make people or ideologies the problem in the stories we live and tell. Either by actively fighting against them, or perhaps by being upset that they aren’t engaged in the way we think they should be, or not following us enough, we divide not just with the people who are on the opposite side of the political debate, but also with the people with whom we most closely align.
As our fears and hopes interact, they drive us to place our affections somewhere, to find significance in our work, or achievement of power—and ultimately that affects who or what guides us.
But before we get to the part about meeting a guide, consider this quote from Robert McKee. In his book Story (p. 13), he’s talking about how story is what we turn to in our search for meaning and to understand life. But he notes that “The art of story is in decay, and as Aristotle observed twenty-three hundred years ago, when storytelling goes bad, the result is decadence.” He continues to describe what that looks like:
"Flawed and false storytelling is forced to substitute spectacle for substance, trickery for truth. Weak stories, desperate to hold audience attention, degenerate into multimillion-dollar razzle-dazzle demo reels. In Hollywood imagery becomes more and more extravagant, in Europe more and more decorative. The behavior of actors becomes more and more histrionic, more and more lewd, more and more violent. Music and sound effects become increasingly tumultuous. The total effect transudes into the grotesque. A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society. If not, as Yeats warned, '…the centre can not hold.'"
He’s talking about the film industry, but all of politics is storytelling and I don’t think I’ve found a better description of what’s going on in American political culture. The stories we live and tell consist of heroes who can’t and never will solve our problems, of hopes and fears placed in desired outcomes that always let us down, leaving us to go on searching for significance in the very places we are so disappointed.
The result of these weak stories is a total degeneration of our political culture; politicians freaking out to move people to vote, or donate, or worse join the fight against their own neighbors.
While this does shed incredible light on our situation, let’s come back to what we know is true: our political culture is often dysfunctional, and approval ratings for Congress, the body responsible for representing us all and making the U.S. a Republic, are practically at zero—and often the people who work there disapprove of the job Congress is doing.
So where do we go from here? The stories we live and the stories we tell are driving us crazy, and our problems as we understand them seem only to make it worse.
“A good storyteller speaks something into nothing. Where there is an absence of story, or perhaps a bad story, a good storyteller walks in and changes reality. He doesn’t critique the existing story, or lament about his boredom, like a critic. He just tells something different and invites other people into the new story he is telling.” p. 232.
What if we could completely shift the paradigm and tell a new story, and what if the reason we are so unhappy with the current story is that we haven’t yet learned to do so?
It’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.
“God is kind, but he’s not soft. In his kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change.” (Romans 2 – The Message).
Whoa, kindness and radical life change? What’s that all about? And could we even seriously argue this isn’t what we need in our political culture?
Repentance—a turning away from the path we are on, a complete change of direction; radical life change. Yes, this is what we need, but why? Why aren’t our current stories working?
We’ve misdiagnosed the problem; we’ve missed the greatness of our guide, the grandness of his plan, and the excitement of his call to action. The gospel tells us our greatest problem is our rejection of God—and that it has impacted everything; our relationships, our physical bodies, even creation. But if we see our own brokenness as the problem, we can truly begin to see people and their ideologies not as the problem but as opportunities to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the same book, Donald Miller also writes
“You can call it God or a conscience, or you can dismiss it as that intuitive knowing we all have as human beings, as living storytellers; but there is a knowing I feel that guides me toward better stories, toward being a better character. I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness.” p. 86.
A wise friend recently noted that he asked a group of high-level political activists around the time of the 2012 election a simple question: if you could implement all of your policies over a year or two after winning an election, how big of an impact would it actually have? Or what if instead for sixty days we truly learned to love our neighbors as ourselves? Which would have the greater impact?
Sometimes it seems people write off ideas as “philosophy”, as if thinking is a bad thing, but deep down we all know ideas have consequences, and if we truly pursued loving our neighbors to its conclusion—if we thought of liberty as a creative pursuit of truth and beauty—we could establish balance and creativity in our work, our communication would no longer target fake enemies, and our personal well-being would be valued as critical to the pursuit of the well-being of others.
Because the world is broken, it's going to take concentrated effort to shift the paradigm and to rethink how we define our problems. A turning point for me on this came a couple years back after a shooting in a school. As a staffer on the hill, I was responsible for writing at the time. How do you explain a position on the Second Amendment, in favor of restrictions or not, knowing that either way it won't solve the deepest issue people are crying out for you to heal? We have to be able to step back and realize that our policies won't necessarily bring healing, that there's a deeper calling. It's in situations like these, when we are faced with the deep problems of human brokenness, that we desperately need to rethink our calling and our purpose. We need to come back to the heart-cry, the anthem, LIBERATUS—we are set free.