“My experience is that the heart absorbs and integrates more deeply than the mind” – Mark Nepo
Story Power can be Used to Disempower and Defeat
Story is part of the human DNA, and integral to our thinking, feeling and acting. Story plays a role in informing how we imagine, relate, access wisdom, and facilitate inquiry.
Story can be therapeutic, motivational, healing. It can also injure, wound, harm. A halo that can free and lift us. A noose that can strangle.
Growing threats include global warming, degradation, destruction, pollution, conflict, the decline of scarce resources, shrinking economies, the rise of ‘we first’ patriotism relative to cooperative globalisation, and shrinking personal freedom. In tandem with these threats we see a disquieting development - the emergence,in politics and in the business world, of story that misinforms, manipulates, coerces, divides, demeans, ostracizes and deceives. Witness fake news, astroturfing, Brand stories that pretend at values and principles that are not practised, and downright lies. Web content creators manage to slip past gatekeepers and spread misinformation and lies. They succeed in these manipulations, and in pushing for and finding fertile ground for the establishment and reinforcement of radical views. Some politicians deviously manage their desired outcomes by preying on fears, promoting 'alternative realities', presenting factoids based on false assumptions. They blur the truth and bolster their own position and interests. (Curtis, A. 2016). There appears to be a spreading of narcissism, a me-first, self-serving that is devoid of empathy.
Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck has bluntly proposed the condition of ‘evil’. A character - disorder possessed by those who feel no love nor empathy yet use emotion as a decoy, cannot accept any form of criticism, hide from their own consciousness and habitually lie to deceive others and project blame, while maintaining a façade (of perfection, control and guiltlessness). People of the lie. (Scott Peck, M. 1988)
Neuroscience has showed that our frontal lobes are involved when we lie, cover up the truth. Unlike Carlo Collodi’s Pinnochio our noses don’t grow longer, but our limbic system is activated and the lie causes anxiety. Is that effect waning in this new age of falsehood and unashamed serving of self - interest at the expense of others?
As we enter the fourth industrial revolution and a palpably more fragile world, how compelling is the need for the development of a framework of story ethics? How imperative is the need for stories of redemption, stories that enlighten, inspire, bring hope, fuel a passionate response to the pressing needs of the interconnected cosmos, globe, nations, organisations and individuals? Stories that help to close the widening gap between technological capability and raised consciousness.
We Have Reached a Critical Tipping Point
False, disruptive stories are everywhere. And they are increasing exponentially. In elections and referendums, to what extent have FaceBook and Twitter bots been mobilised to disseminate slanted information designed to sway opinion and voter action? At what level of subtlety have these stories crept under people’s credibility-guards, resulted in the bypassing of the average person’s cognitive dissonance? To what extent have walls between people been reinforced and erected? The magnitude of the deceit and resulting challenge cannot be downplayed. "The fact is, that when more panic and insecurity arise in a society, it can easily happen that we lose the higher functions of our humanity, such as compassion, multi-perspectivity, creativity, and rootedness, and find ourselves in fear of survival and the feeling of separation and against one another". (Hübl, T. 2019)
But there is always a reframing waiting to emerge, or an alternative story to be told. A different way of perceiving, understanding and telling the story.
Mass migrations are a case in point. Are they a threat or opportunity? Or both? Dispossessed and displaced people from war torn and impoverished countries have led to enormous resentment, fear and hostility in receiving countries. Perhaps the policies, processes and communication around these unexpected and high-volume migrations leave much to be desired? Yet there is some evidence that the problem could be an opportunity in disguise. Psychology professor Richard Crisp has examined how positive creativity and progress has historically emerged out of major culture ‘clashes’, and how a protective, aggressive reaction to a threat from an outside group can be beneficially substituted by non-dual, coalition thinking, and by a considered response that stimulates positive forward movement. (Crisp, R. 2015)
A number of people have recently voiced to me their disquiet with their formal church institution where they like the song but not the singers. Walls here too. I became involved in an acrimonious, Karpman Triangle situation within a church where I was offering pro bono services in a key area. And rediscovered why I left the institutional church. Why so many are disconnected and lonely. Why I seek and practice my spirituality on my own except for a few trusted friends that I meet with from time to time, usually on a one on one basis. My sacred group! Within the institutional church the intensity of self-interest above community interest, turf protection, and petty power plays can be quite as scary as in a toxic big corporate. Only the facade is different. The exclusion of those who don’t toe the party line, don’t fit in, disagree on an issue or put forward a suggestion that isn’t palatable, is so sad. I of course was one of the contributors to the misunderstanding, but the accusatory backlash, cold-shoulder response was quite shattering. ‘Tis the season of peace on earth and goodwill to all men except maybe those that are not sufficiently compliant? Surely, here of all places is where inclusion - equity – belonging should be modelled? Shame!
Bridges not Walls
Perhaps a more appropriate metaphor for our times, rather than walls, is that of a bridge.
Even when there are apparent, glaring incompatibilities to be bridged.
Two turbulent Mexican artists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who were married to each other and were in many ways not compatible, lived in adjoining houses in San Angel, Mexico City. The architect designed a home made up of two independent concrete blocks linked by a narrow bridge that joined the rooftops. A red block represented Diego, a blue one Frida. The bridge that united them was the bond of love.
(San Angel Casa Rivera Kahlo)
Challenges at every level are often complex, tangled webs of incompatibilities, influences, interests, uncertainties, fears, possibilities and perceptions. (Anaïs Nin is reported to have said, "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are”). Yet story is able to play an important role in the evolutionary dynamics of self, and cultural and societal norms. By informing how we think, feel and act. By following the principle of transcend and include.
Stories can, in a sense, act as our corrective “thought police”. If they are told and heard. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Not to speak is to speak”.
And as always, the best place to start is with the individual… where in a disrupted and besieged world, confusion, fear, self-judgment, guilt, narcissistic intrusions, self-criticism, anger, shame seem to have reached epidemic proportions …
Bridging the Walls - Within first
Bob Marley’s Redemption Song speaks of our inner work being the route to freedom:
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Our fears, prejudices, limiting beliefs, biases, habitual patterns of thinking, self-judgment, hidden privileges that unconsciously boost ego (our internal fake news) … not stilling our inner critics, soured relationships, a perfection drive (not feeling ‘good enough’), any harsh inner communication with ourselves - these are all stories that detract from us becoming fully human, and wound our spirits (individually and communally)
If we can shake off these shackles, rely instead on ‘possibilist’, freeing and healing stories, then game-changing is possible. We move away from enmity, ‘we-them’, and false esteem via overvaluing the extrinsic. Away from powerlessness, fear, despair, mindlessness …. to mindfulness, acceptance, equity, inclusion and belonging. To ‘us’, true esteem and purpose via the intrinsic. To empowerment, accessing and using our multiple intelligences, to embodying compassion and hope.
If through story we can contribute to the breaking down of walls around our minds (heads and hearts), then we enable a new inner strength and a oneness with others that becomes stronger than any attempts to separate, ostracise, belittle and harm. In relationships, communities, societies, nations and the planet. This is not easy - sometimes the subtlest 'walls' are unseen veils of ignorance, ambiguity, self- protection, political and other games that people play are the hardest to bridge. Although still on the fringe of our understanding and awareness, neurocardiology shows that the heart is part of the “mind”, that “we have a ‘heart brain’ with a vast array of neurons that are processing sensory information on their own and communicating that information to our brain, nervous system and other organ systems. This means the heart is able to learn, remember, and make decisions independent of the brain” (Tafler, A. 2019)
Yield Theory is a heart-based way of hearing the stories of others, a prising open of what it really means to walk in another’s shoes, a way of loving listening to another’s story, validating their experience and together exploring how to move forward. (Conte, C. 2019)
The “heart” is more than merely a pump! Consider:
Maya Angelou’s assertions after a lifetime of oppression, suffering, and efforts to diminish her:
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries? Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise. (Angelou, M. 1978)
Consider Russian Tamara Cheremnova’s life of injustice, defeat, being discarded. She had cerebral palsy and was abandoned by her parents to a lonely life in an orphanage at age 6. She lived there for 12 years under atrocious conditions, and, incorrectly diagnosed with learning difficulties, was sent to a psychiatric home where conditions were also awful. She was effectively isolated and imprisoned for the rest of her life to be. In her words, she felt a “searing shame”.
Tamara was depressed, suicidal, had to come to terms with who she was, what she wanted … “I am lying in bed all bent and disfigured. I have no future. I was biting my lips and choking on my tears”. She needed existential sense-making, to find a reason for living. And “Somewhere deep inside was a seed of hope”
She nourished her inner self through reading, knew that her diagnosis of learning disability was wrong, and was determined to overturn it. Tamara wrote fairy tales. One letter, one word at a time.
Eventually the day came when she achieved her writing goal. She was published. Won awards. Became known to the outside world.
And at the age of 62 she was adopted. Natalia Vasilenko was convicted to become Tamara’s carer – no easy task. Natalia was from a very poor home and with her husband had previously adopted orphans after her own children left home. So Tamara has ‘come home’ and now belongs in a family. She is known as the storyteller of Siberia. Tamara says she has always known what love and suffering are. In her dreams she saw the house in which she now lives.
It is a true-life fairy tale. Tamara smiles a lot.
Consider my friend and ex- marathon running mate, Dave Smal. Severely crippled by multiple sclerosis, reduced to a life in bed, yet he never complained, always sought to uplift others, refused to be walled in, built bridges, learned to speak Xhosa and Zulu, and became so loved by his African carers that they named him Sipho, meaning “the gift”.
Think about Robert Frosts poem, “Mending Wall”. It tells about two neighbours. They repair a fence between their properties. The story is a metaphor for their relationship, and the wall depicts the emotional barrier that keeps them apart. Are they going to bridge the gaps that exist between them - gaps in differences of interests, livelihoods, viewpoints …? (Frost, R. 1914)
And reflect on the Springbok (South African) rugby union team winning the 2019 world cup in Japan against the odds, a team of very mixed ethnic, language, education backgrounds under the captainship of Siya Kolisi, a humble man, whose astonishing story from absolute poverty to becoming a national hero is the stuff of movies. An achievement that for at least a moment in time has inspired and united South Africans from all walks of life.
How Big a Task?
Maybe the bridges we need are already all in place, and imagined walls disappear (sometimes quite suddenly) as we hear redemption and bridge-building stories from others and ourselves?
Maybe we all are connected on the web of life and as Chief Seattle of the Duwamish Tribe stated, “All things are bound together. All things connect”. So when we change as individuals, that change has a quantum impact on the web that we inhabit and traverse. Maybe self-serving, narcissistic tendencies recede and one-ness advances through unconscious bridges between us as we mature? Louis de Bernières:“We had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two”.
If something is stolen, say a bicycle, then the Tojolabales (a Mayan Mexican people) respond, ‘One of us we have stolen a bicycle’. The community then gathers together to ask themselves what is out of balance that gave rise to the theft. (Friend, E. 2019) This is the concept of interdependence termed interbeing by Thich Nhat Hanh. (Thich Nhat Hanh. 2017).
As Thomas Merton became aware of on a crowded street corner in the midst of an ordinary day …
In Louisville, at the corner of 4th (now Muhammad Ali Blvd.) and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. . . (Merton, T. 1965)
As a way of being, perhaps we could remain alert to detect fake news, subtle propaganda techniques, internal biases ...? Yet it seems to me that there is also a great need for us to remove unnecessary filtering whenever possible. Unfiltered sensory experiences allow us to hear the other's heart, see the essence of a flower, feel the touch of something higher. Unfiltered contemplation means we can access and rely on our intuition. Unfiltered relating experiences (without simultaneous analysis, intruding thoughts and urges to interrupt with argument or solution) can reinforce our sense of oneness and belonging on the web of life. And stay tuned in to positive stories.
Steve Bánhegyi encourages us to envision overcoming false and dark narratives by not seeing them to be immovable, impenetrable objects, but rather as possessing qualities that allow bridging stories over and through. The Great Wall of China served also as a transportation system. A road and a wall. Certainly, a vertical wall tilted 90°becomes a horizontal autobahn that ideas can speed across! And maybe because walls are porous they selectively allow certain things to filter in while keeping other things out - analogous to our discerning, protective immune systems, our language and cognitive functions that both accept and discredit/ reject according to our perceived needs? (Bánhegyi, S. 2019)
Right now we are liminally poised in antenarrative space, a concept developed by a friend, David Boje. (Boje, D. 2019).
Which stories of redemption, hope and connection do we wish to tell, actively engage with, live, and see emerge?
Angelou, Maya (1978) And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems Random House
Bánhegyi, Steve (2019) https://storytelling.co.za/Boje, David (2019) Six Antenarrative questions behind storytelling
Conte, Christian Dr (2019) Yield Theory™
Crisp, Richard (2015) The Social Brain: how diversity made the modern mind Robinson
Curtis, Adam (2016) HyperNormalization: a different experience of reality
Friend, Erik (2019) of Comunidad México Guest Post for Pachamama Alliance
Frost, Robert (1914) North of Boston David Nutt
Hübl, Thomas Thomas Hübl on the Collective Trauma Online Summit October 2019
Merton, Thomas (1965) Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander Doubleday Religion, NY. ©The Abbey of Gethsemani
San Angel Casa Rivera Kahlo Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
Scott Peck, M (1988) People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil Century Hutchinson
Tamara Smiles a Lot https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=438&v=XSS5z9qKZ4k
Tafler, Afshan (2019) How Your Heart May Be Your Wisest Brain June 27, 2019
Thich Nhat Hanh (2017) The Insight of Interbeing: everything relies on everything else in order to manifest. Garrison Institute 2nd August, 2017