All together now – why we need to tell different stories
Humans are wired for stories. Brain scans have shown that reading or hearing stories activates various areas of the cortex that are known to be involved in social and emotional processing. Stories let us share information in a way that creates emotional connections and empathy; they remind us that we are not alone in the world and can guide our future actions.
I have always been a storyteller of sorts; it’s what I enjoy most. Before I turned to writing fulltime as an author and screenwriter, I pursued a career as a lawyer. For several years I worked internationally for the United Nations which helped me to understand the complexity of challenges, humankind is currently facing. It has also become obvious to me, that we can only solve increasing global problems like climate change together. Collective effort is needed to develop vaccines against deadly viruses or find lasting solutions for poverty and social injustices. Nobody can fight these problems alone.
The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.
Most of our stories don’t reflect this new paradigm. The American mythologist Joseph Campbell studied myths and stories from around the world and concluded in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces that there was a basic pattern of storytelling found in narratives across epochs, cultures and geographies.
In the Hero’s Journey the hero enters the darkness, faces challenges, slays the dragon, retrieves the treasure, emerges stronger and finally offers his newly found gifts to the world. He and his people will be saved. The Hero’s Journey celebrates individualism, separation, hierarchy, and masculine energy. Star Wars, Spiderman, Lord of the Rings and the Lion King and many other movies follow this script. The Hero’s Journey is so powerful and compelling, because it is about direct conflict and therefore speaks to the human survival instinct that remains deeply planted in all of our minds.
The world we live in today is increasingly complex and difficult to make sense of in simplistic terms. In times of mass movements like the climate movement, 99% and the democracy movement in Hong Kong the individual narrative of the Hero’s Journey is beginning to feel outdated. It’s becoming obvious that we are indeed the hero we have been waiting for and our stories should reflect that. It’s time to move beyond the traditional heroic narratives and develop more inclusive forms of storytelling which engage and bring together diverse groups of people to tackle the biggest challenges of our time. For instance my documentary film NOW about the climate movement features a very diverse group of protagonists and interviewees – from the musician Patti Smith to Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus and activists from different continents. They are fighting for the same cause – systems change not climate change. The individual narrative of the Hero’s Journey would not have been appropriate for this complex story and I was looking for a different approach.
This new story modality is the Collective Journey (as coined by Jeff Gomez). The protagonist is one of many: he almost immediately establishes himself as one of the people, one of a vast community. The Collective Journey tells a story of systems and structures which need to be repaired. There is the story being told, and there is the ability of individuals to cross over into the story. Collective Journeys move from the individual to the entity, the many to the one, and the chaotic to the organized. Whereas the Hero’s Journey is about challenging events as a call for personal transformation, the Collective Journey describes systemic change. Game of Thrones is an example for this new narrative.
The possibilities of the digital age enhance new narratives even further: readers and viewers can connect directly with the storyteller and contribute to the narrative. The audience is no longer the passive consumer of stories; they are actively participating in the storytelling process. The connections are accessible and stunningly fast because of technology. This unparalleled access to communications platforms enables almost everybody to tell their own stories and find audiences for them or become a participant in the stories of others. The story-world is becoming less linear and more participative.
As excited and positive as I am about the new narrative and technical possibilities, I am also aware of the challenges in connection with the collective approach. The new narrative models hopefully will lead to social dynamics of movements toward sustainable futures. To reach this goal we jointly need to develop narratives of vision and harness their power for the betterment of all of us. The narratives need to convey values and norms and point to desirable future developments. As Mahatma Ghandi said: The future depends on what we do in the present.