Saturday, May 12, 2007

Stories Define Us

Let me tell you a story: I was listening to a Social Innovations Podcast and two concepts stuck me as so powerful, I had to record them here:

Stories define us as individuals

Roger Schank, in Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence says, "We tell stories to describe ourselves, not only so others can understand who we are, but also so we can understand ourselves. Telling our stories allows us to collect our personal mythology. And the collection of stories we've compiled is to some extent who we are... You are the stories you want to tell, minus the stories nobody wants to hear anymore, which leaves the stories you tell." As told by Andy Goodman, Storytelling for Good Causes

Stories define us as a culture

Robert Reich, in Tales of a New America, identifies four stories that the American culture uses to guide our lives:

  • Mob at the Gates (We are threatened by external bad guys - Brits, Nips, Nazis, Commies, Drug lords, Terrorists, take your pick)

  • The Triumphant Individual (Any rich, wastrel drug addict can grow up to be president)

  • The Benevolent Community (We take care of our own - why the FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina was such a big story)

  • Rot at the Top (We must always be on guard against corruption from within)

The movie It's a Wonderful Life contains all four. See if you can find them next Christmas.

What's important is that, depending on who's in power, the stories they choose to tell about a situation affects policy, how money is spent, and how lives are wasted. As an example, Reagan, the government, and the media defined the drug problem as The Mob at The Gates, so we wasted billions on ineffective border interdiction. Perhaps, if he had called on The Benevolent Community to address the affliction of addiction and this country's deep appetite for drugs, we would be on our way to healing the root cause. The four stories are also described on Reich’s blog post, The Lost Art Of Democratic Narrative.

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