Make up a story… For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.
– Toni Morrison
“Let me tell you a story, Mama.”
I must have heard that particular request over a thousand times this past year from my young children. Every night at bedtime, I spend some time with each of them individually. We talk about their days, what was best about the day and what was worst about them. More often than not, our conversations drift into imaginary stories, theirs and mine, that weave our memories into something spectacular.
The stories range from tales about dinosaurs that roar, dragons in outer space, Boba Fett and his clone army family tree, 9-year-old girls who become international soccer stars, 7-year-old girls who live in forests and can become invisible and save the world when they drink chocolate milk and eat sour gummy worms, and children who have the power to walk through windows to make things better for other people.
These all seem like the markings of typically imaginative and playful childhoods. But these narratives carry an atypical force. These are the stories that have safely allowed my children to explore the ‘story’ of their lives. These stories have allowed them to safely discover worlds they want to live in and the ones they want to avoid. Our nightly narrative has given them stability, hope, and the ability to wake up the next morning and know their place in the curious world around them.
Throughout history, narrative has always been a powerful force. Whether it arises out of an urgency to tell a particular story, is used as a tool to preserve the status quo, or sear nostalgia for a place that never was into our collective memory, narrative is at once both radical and clichéd; exploitative and liberating. But it’s rarely apolitical. Narrative changes us. Narrative sells us nostalgia. Narrative connects us to the world we live in and the one we aspire to.
For most of us, this past year, as years past, was about the power of narrative forces in our lives.
The fact is that narrative, or story telling, is the way that humans communicate information. If there isn’t a narrative there, virtually no one will read it, consider it, or least of all, consume it. Narratives make sense out of chaos and bring hope out of fear. In 2015, narrative carried with it a particular urgency and power. It is narrative that has allowed fear to reign over America and much of the rest of the world. Riding that wave to its crest, ISIS masterfully sold its followers a story capitalizing on fear, loss of identity, and a vision of a more thrilling world – nevermind how twisted, corrupt, and evil the pathways.
Also in 2015, presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, rode the waves of fear with a story to sell, too. Trump made it clear to shocked political pundits: the reality television and real estate magnate knows something about crafting a narrative that is appealing to Americans who have little tolerance for ambiguity or complexity. Recent polls have found that Trump’s proclivity to ‘put it all out there,’ disregarding political correctness is refreshing to many Americans. That Trump’s narratives seldom explain how exactly he will “make America great again” matters little. What matters most to his supporters is that Trump’s narrative tells us our nation’s problems are simple and easy to solve, even when they aren’t.
In reality, 2015 made the world seem complicated for nearly everyone, not just Trump supporters. The personal became increasingly political as uncomfortable and complex social issues took the streets and entered the public square. Week after week, we sunk into an increasingly chaotic world: gun violence; systemic police brutality and misconduct; the mass incarceration endemic; broken public school systems; sexual assault charges against Bill Cosby; the Syrian refugee crisis; a still existing pay gap; and impending climate change.
We humans aren’t good at navigating uncertainty. More often than not, there are no clear-cut answers to our problems. What divides us in how we respond to uncertainty isn’t so much our politics, our faith, or our moral values. Rather, it’s whether we are willing to allow the emotional – as opposed to a deliberative, rational approach – to carry the day.
Drawing on the power of storytelling and our cognitive biases, Trump and ISIS both tap into a zero-sum game mindset – what they would each refer to as an “intuitive” way of looking at the world. Our human nature, as forceful as it might be, does not need to be our destiny though. Whether it is dismantling the disturbingly simple narratives extolled by ISIS, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or Donald Trump, human beings’ propensity toward large, elementary stories over that which is complex and nuanced can be slowly overcome.
The power of narratives that draw upon fear, anxiety, and bias may never be eliminated but we can challenge how it affects our behavior. Researchers have found that simply making people aware that bias exists and how our brains process it can influence behavior. Researchers have also found that the more information people have about the ‘other’ – their demographics, attitudes, and concerns – the more we can shift the way people approach uncertainty, from an emotional based response to one that is more thoughtful and reasoned.
Whatever our respective identities, our collective thinking in 2015 was all too often shifted off course under the influence of narratives that were fed by our fear, anxieties, and sense of loss. Changing our direction in 2016 will require persuasion and new narratives that draw upon complexity and chart out courses that help us to make sense of uncertainty. Instead of dismissing those who fall on the other side of the spectrum as stupid, “crazy”, and evil, it would serve us well to understand their biases and that which steers them away from anything unfamiliar, complex, or uncertain.
In the coming year, we need narratives that help us dive into that uncertainty and complexity, not to forget or displace it, but to understand it and help others and ourselves find ease in the chaos. As my children have taught me every night as we lie in bed and tell each other stories, there’s a science to walking through windows, there’s a science to making the world a place we feel comfortable living in.
Samar Kaukab is an altM columnist and Advisory Board member.