Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Telling Life: Some thoughts on storytelling in a political season

My heart is breaking. Every time I watch the news, read the paper or open Facebook I feel myself flinch. The words spoken, the stories told in this political season are destructive, selected to tear down the other and enclose the tribe in walls of thorns and poison. I shudder and close my eyes, hoping it will all go away.

You probably feel this way, too, regardless of your political persuasion. Whether you support this side or that, our dark selves are being revealed, reviled and reveled in. My heart cracks as I see people I thought "better than that" say things they might never have dared say before. In some ways this may be a good thing since it means we now know just how many of the other there are, but I still want to believe, need to believe that we are more alike than we are different, that we still all care about similar things, that we will be kind when we can.

What's a storyteller to do?

I can think of three responses that don't rise out of fear and instead reflect the things that drive me to tell stories, listen to others and do my best to create a world in which all can be heard.

The first is to remember that these are stories and that storytelling is an incredibly powerful tool. Our brains change when we listen to stories. The politicians have master craftspeople working with them to tell the stories that they think will persuade more people to vote for them. Whether they use fear, empathy, demagoguery or logic, they are using spoken stories to make us care. It is all manipulation, all political storytelling. When I remember that this is the dark side of storytelling it helps me listen with more clarity. It helps me feel less afraid.

While it doesn't necessarily make me feel any better, I think it's worth remembering the basic neurology of storytelling in times like these. It can be used for good or for evil and when we, the audience, remember this we can more easily choose how to respond. We can decide if we want to believe what our brains are telling us and we can remember to look deeper. I'm not suggesting that we need to go into every storytelling experience with this level of skepticism, but I do think we need to remember that the things we do as performers to build empathy and connection with the audience, to entrance them, are no different from the things being done to us as political consumers. This also helps me when I wonder how anyone can support a candidate with whom I disagree. It helps me feel empathy for the audience if not for the story and the teller.

The second is to remember that so much of the response to what is being said arises out of fear. We are all afraid that we are alone, that we are different, that we are not of the tribe or we are fearful of those outside our tribe. If I cut to the chase and listen to those who believe things I may not, I am often surprised by what I hear. They (whoever they may be) likely care about the same things I do. We both want our families to be safe and secure, we both want to know that the world will not harm us, we both want to feel as though things we believe in are being done in our names. The methods may differ as may some of the hoped-for outcomes, but the underlying fears and hopes are largely the same. I can use my story ears to listen to each individual and hope that they will listen to me, I can use my storytelling skills to encourage empathy, I can believe that we can find common ground. It won't always work, but I know I feel better, feel less disempowered, if I at least try.

A third thing I can try, though I have to face down all my fears to do it, is to tell my own story in a clear compelling way. I may not change anyone's mind, but I know I have tried. I can choose what story I tell and how. For instance, this year on election day I will drive people to the polls. I need to know I tried. Sometimes we need to know we have acted so we can tell ourselves the story of self that we most need to hear regardless of the context within which it exists.

None of  this stops my heart from breaking. None of this stops my fears from gripping me in a stranglehold. None of this will stop me from voting for my candidate as you vote for yours. But maybe remembering that these stories are deliberately manipulative and the "other side" is little different from me will help assuage the fear and remind me that there is still room for hope.

(c)2016 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Great advice. I just feel disappointed by the growing divide in this country. I feel like this country is so polarized that we as a people may never be able to come together again.

    1. I fear that too. The only things I can control are my own reactions and hope that it will have an influence.

  2. A quote from one of MY favorite stories, 'To Kill a Mockingbird', has been coming to mind a lot lately:

    "It's different this time ... This time we aren't fighting the Yankees, we're fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they're still our friends and this is still our home."

    1. Yes. Though I wish I felt more secure in this being believed across the board.


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