- I believe that storytelling should be seen not as an expert skill but as an innate capacity available to all human beings.
- I believe that the benefits of listening to stories and making sense of them should not depend on outside analysts, but should be available to groups of people working together for their own benefit.
- I believe that stories should be seen not as commodities to be consumed but as the lifeblood of families, communities, organizations, and societies.
As always, what I write will not be advice but exploration that is helpful to me and might be helpful to others. As always, my writing will be idiosyncratic, personal, and probably wrong in places. As always, I'm going to plunge in anyway.
A warning before we start: this has turned out to be one of my longer blog posts. I'm not going to apologize -- it is as long as it wanted to be -- but if you're in a hurry right now, you might want to read this when you have some free time, and maybe a snack.
Anybody still here? Okay. Here we go.
A city under attack
In the city of my left ear, the invasion was swift and decisive. The steel tower arrived without notice or provocation. Dozens of city blocks were instantly obliterated. Within hours after the attack, relatives of those lost came streaming in, searching, posting images of their loved ones on the heedless, shining flanks of the great tower, pleading with whatever had sent it to send it away.
The first time the steel tower disappeared, many of those people moved into the flattened space, singing and lighting candles of remembrance. Thus it was that the second massacre was even worse than the first. In the first few months, waves of distraught citizens washed over the area, wailing, fighting among themselves, attacking the tower with anything they could find, their hands bloody with passion.
Eventually the people noticed that there was a pattern to the appearance and disappearance of the steel tower. It sometimes vanished for weeks at a time and seemed as if it might be gone forever. But inevitably the tower would return, crushing any nascent activity in the area.
The people of the city of my left ear gathered, debated, and finally agreed to resist the unjust occupation. They promised each other that they would wear down the resolve of whoever or whatever was attacking their city. Many lives would be lost, but the city would not surrender without a fight.
The city carried out its vow with relentless energy. Each time the tower disappeared, workers rushed into the space and started construction anew. Each appearance of the tower was a fresh disaster, but it was also an opportunity to learn. In each destructive cycle, new materials were introduced; new strategies were employed; new observations were made.
In time, the city's efforts began to pay off in small but celebrated victories. It was found, for example, that if the people of the city gathered around the tower and screamed at the top of their lungs for days at a time, appearances of the tower could be reduced. Incredibly, the tower seemed to respond to the city's collective pain. Sometimes, after thousands of people had kept up their ritual of screaming for three or four days, the tower would disappear for weeks, and another experiment in the construction of tower-repulsing materials could be undertaken. None of these experiments ever worked -- the tower punched through everything -- but as time went by the city found hope in its new occupation.
The tower became the city's obsession. People stood about in their ragged clothes watching the tower, or the construction site. While they watched, they told stories. They told about the days before the tower came, and about the days to come -- far off but clearly foretold -- when the tower would disappear for the last time and the city would thrive.
Same day, different city
In the city of my right ear, the invasion happened on the same day. Again it was swift and decisive. But in this city, the reaction was careful and restrained. Police quickly moved in to prevent distraught citizens from coming near the unpredictable structure. Makeshift memorials were set up at safe distances from the tower. Only hardened professionals entered the area, quick to make their assessments, sure in their movements.
The same observations about the appearances and disappearances of the tower took place in my right ear. Faced with these facts, the people of the city decided on a practical long-term plan. Tall ramparts were erected around the invasion site. Streets were rerouted. Citizens were forbidden to enter the site, even when (especially when) the area seemed safe. A somber, elegant museum was dedicated to those lost in the disaster. The city accepted the inevitable and adapted to the occupation.
In time the steel tower was forgotten, coming and going on its own schedule behind its insulating shell. People went about their business as though that part of the city had never existed. Children played games against the wall, chalking it with targets and score points, unaware of the danger hidden behind it. The city thrived.
Two ways of living in the world
In case you haven't figured it out yet, I've been talking about earrings. I got my ears pierced about thirty years ago, and ever since, my ears have been playing out a little somatic allegory for my edification. My right ear recovered from the injury quickly and never bothered me again. But my left ear has steadfastly refused to accept its fate. When I wear earrings for more than a few days, my left ear screams in pain, swells, and gets infected, and I have to stop and give the ear a rest. When I don't wear earrings, my left ear never stops trying to close the hole. If I want to put an earring into my left ear and it has been more than a few weeks, I have to punch through a thin layer of skin newly engineered to keep me out.
This contrast between acceptance and defiance, between realism and idealism, has often caused me to contemplate the choices we make as we face our own challenges.
My ears were, of course, not the first to think of this allegory; many others have come before them. Jane Austen wrote an entire book on the topic, Sense and Sensibility. The novel contrasts the personalities of two sisters. The younger sister, Marianne, is an idealist. She runs after every possibility, crashes to the ground when each one falls apart, and gets right back up again to run after the next dream. She lives in the city of my left ear, never giving up, never planning ahead, never taking stock.
Elinor, the older sister, is a realist. She sees the dangers of hope, erects walls around it, and manages her city with care. (In the novel's title, the word Sense applies to Elinor, because she is sensible, as we use the word today. The word Sensibility applies to Marianne, because "sensible" used to mean sensitive or emotionally labile.)
These ways of living contrast throughout the novel. Early on, Elinor meets and is obviously liked by Edward Ferrars, but there are obstacles between them that mean he may not be able to marry her. (Sadly, getting married was the only thing most young women had to look forward to at that time.)
Said Elinor soon after meeting Edward,
"I do not attempt to deny," said she, "that I think very highly of him—that I greatly esteem, that I like him."
Marianne here burst forth with indignation—"Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again, and I will leave the room this moment."
Elinor could not help laughing. "Excuse me," said she; "and be assured that I meant no offence to you, by speaking, in so quiet a way, of my own feelings. Believe them to be stronger than I have declared; believe them, in short, to be such as his merit, and the suspicion -- the hope of his affection for me may warrant, without imprudence or folly. But farther than this you must not believe. I am by no means assured of his regard for me.And then she said some more about how she must be careful not to get her hopes up. This of course is happening while Marianne is helplessly falling head over heels for a man who obviously (to we readers) has no intention of marrying her.
As no doubt you will have guessed by now, I am much more a Marianne than an Elinor. I love my rabble-rousing left ear. Since a young age I have resisted the inevitable, fought against injustice, fought for imagined futures.
But I have also always felt conflicted about it. It seems to me that most of the people who have actually made the world a better place, who have made an impact rather than just noise, have been right-ear people. The right-ear people make their way in the world, and they make the world, while we left-ear people seem to waste our energy, giving out more heat than light. People who care too much, who live too raw, who never give up, never win.
But I'm not sure about that, either. The city of my right ear has been thriving for thirty years, while the city of my left ear has been living in misery, obsessed with driving out an implacable foe. But that's not the whole story. My left ear has had an impact on the overall situation. I wear earrings far less frequently than I used to, mainly because the screaming gets to me. In a way, the left ear has won. But in another way the right ear won long ago.
I was looking for writings about idealism and realism on the internet and found a cartoon by Dana Fradon, originally published in the New Yorker. It looks like this:
Maybe the best reason to be an idealist is that idealists help more people than just themselves. In the case of my ears, both cities meant only to protect themselves, but the left ear ended up helping everyone.
As George Bernard Shaw put it:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.So which is the better way to live? I don't know. Some days I am firmly resolved to change myself and become more practical, and some days I am ready to throw it all away for the joy of believing that the impossible, as the saying goes, just takes a little longer.
The Elsa paradox
So the other day, I was thinking about how lots of people I know seem to have easier lives than I do because they are realists. They have retirement savings, and their houses are well maintained, and they go on vacations, and they are never "in between" anything. Maybe if I could become more practical, more like Elinor or the city of my right ear, I might be happier.
And then I suddenly had a realization.What if all the people I see as realists, the people I see as succeeding out there in the big scary world, think they are idealists? I'll bet they compare themselves to people who are even more realist than themselves. They might even think I'm a realist, in some dimension I'm not considering.
This made me think of the Elsa paradox. When I saw the movie Frozen, I was deeply moved by the song Elsa sings in which she refuses to give up her magical powers and become like everyone else. It spoke directly to my sense of being misunderstood, unique, different. A few days later I was looking up Frozen on the internet, and I found out that pretty much everybody who has seen that movie has been moved by that song. Everyone identifies with Elsa. We are all misunderstood, unique, and different.
But how can we all be outcasts? Who is left to be normal?
Of course the great philosopher Sting thought of this paradox in ancient times. In his 1979 treatise, "Message in a Bottle," after the story's lonely hero sends out his castaway cry for help (in a bottle):
Walked out this morning I don't believe what I sawA hundred billion bottles, if we assume one bottle per person, places this story firmly into the science fiction genre, and that's a convenient bridge to my next thought.
A hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore
Seems I'm not alone in being alone
A hundred billion castaways looking for a home
I am the hero of my story (but not of yours)
Because it's winter, I've been binge-watching post-apocalyptic sci-fi television shows. One thing I've noticed is that the heroes of these stories always live in the city of my left ear. They never give up. They fight until every extra and every recurring character is gone. Even when the situation seems hopeless, even when giving in might save everyone (but in a less interesting way), these people fight on. This is nothing new, of course; the ancient epics also tell of heroes who persevere through hopeless situations. The universal popularity of such stories is another manifestation of the Elsa paradox. Not only do we all see ourselves as idealists, we all want our heroes to be idealists.
Why do we do this? My guess is that we have a deep-seated need to see ourselves as heroes who never give up -- because that's exactly what we are, at least in some parts of our lives. We all face situations that seem hopeless. We've been looking for a job for six months, or our software users have found more bugs, or we face an uncertain audience for our new book, or we hate the new system we are being forced to use at work. Refusing to give up when times get tough is something we all need to keep practicing. That's why Joseph Campbell spoke of the Hero's Journey, not the Hero's Checklist.
I return to the question: How can we all be outcasts at the same time? It's not possible for nobody to be realistic, because if that were true there would be nobody left to be idealistic. Here's the answer, I think: we're not all outcasts at the same time, because we're not all heroes at the same time.
In what I wrote above, I portrayed the people in my left-ear city as valiant heroes, passionately plunging into the thick of the conflict. I portrayed the people in my right-ear city as detached professionals, capably but dispassionately managing a difficult situation. I told you a biased story about the people in my ears because I identified with the left-ear city. I made them the heroes of the overall story, and I made the right-ear people minor characters.
Why did I do that? Not because I'm passionate. Not because I'm unique. Because I'm human. Everybody does that. The reason there appear to be no right-ear people in the world, even though the evidence of their existence is all around us, is that each one of us is the hero of our own story. The right-ear city is everybody else. It's how we appear to each other.
Everybody has aspects of the idealist and the realist in them. Some people are mixed more to one side than the other, but nobody is unmixed. I think of myself as an idealist in many ways, but I live in a house, and I eat food, and I sleep, and I watch post-apocalyptic sci-fi. For every way in which I am an idealist, there is another way in which I am a realist, and vice versa. We all have plenty of diversity inside us from which to choose how we will portray ourselves. And when we tell stories to ourselves about ourselves, we portray ourselves as the passionate heroes.
We also choose how we will portray other people, and passion doesn't look as passionate from the outside as it does from the inside. One of my favorite quotes about stories is from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, where he talks about our parts in each other's stories.
Each of us being a main character in his own drama plays subordinate parts in the dramas of others, and each drama constrains the others. In my drama, perhaps, I am Hamlet or Iago or at least the swineherd who may yet become a prince, but to you I am only A Gentleman or at best Second Murderer, while you are my Polonius or my Gravedigger, but your own hero. Each of our dramas exerts constraints on each other’s, making the whole different from the parts, but still dramatic....Thus, when I sit around and think about how I'm such a passionate do-gooder, and everyone around me is blithely living their lives paying no attention to the greater good, I am actually surrounded by people thinking the same thing about me.
This idea of each person playing the main character in their own drama comes up in Sense and Sensibility. Later in the novel, it is revealed that Edward cannot marry Elinor because he promised his hand to Lucy a long time ago. He has since regretted the arrangement, but as a man of his word he cannot break his promise. The novel's twist is that Lucy, not realizing that Elinor has feelings for Edward, tells her about the secret engagement in confidence. So Elinor spends months suffering in silence, unable to tell her sister of her heartbreak.
On finally learning about this situation, Marianne is characteristically overwhelmed with emotion. I hope you will not mind my quoting you from the screenplay of the 1995 movie instead of the book, because the screenplay is so much more understandable out of context:
ELINOR - Edward made his promise a long time ago, long before he met me. Though he may... harbour some regret, I believe he will be happy--in the knowledge that he did his duty and kept his word. After all--after all that is bewitching in the idea of one's happiness depending entirely on one person, it is not always possible. We must accept. Edward will marry Lucy--and you and I will go home.
MARIANNE - Always resignation and acceptance! Always prudence and honour and duty! Elinor, where is your heart?
ELINOR finally explodes. She turns upon MARIANNE almost savagely.
ELINOR - What do you know of my heart? What do you know of anything but your own suffering? For weeks, Marianne, I have had this pressing on me without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature. It was forced upon me by the very person whose prior claims ruined all my hopes. I have had to endure her exultation again and again while knowing myself to be divided from Edward forever. Believe me, Marianne, had I not been bound to silence I could have produced proof enough of a broken heart even for you.
Complete silence. Then MARIANNE speaks in a whisper.
MARIANNE - Oh, Elinor!
MARIANNE bursts into sobs and flings her arms around ELINOR, who, almost impatiently, tries to comfort her.The irony that Elinor has to comfort Marianne as she deals with Elinor's sorrow is one of the reasons Jane Austen was a master of the novel.
Marianne is the hero of the story she tells to herself, and Elinor is merely a side character. Marianne never considers the possibility that Elinor might have her own story of heroic struggle. I made the same mistake when I told you about my right ear. Because I didn't see it as representing myself, I didn't stop to consider its story.
If Tuvok of Star Trek: Voyager had been here to advise me when I was writing that section, he would have told me what he told Chakotay:
Do not mistake composure for ease.The people living in my right ear must believe that their solution to the problem of the steel tower is as heroic as the struggle going on in my left ear. Surely their grief is no less bitter because it does not scream. And my right-ear city has its own stories. Of course it does. They may be simpler and quieter than the left-ear stories, but the people of the right-ear city also yearn for a time when they can rebuild their shattered streets and tear down the walls they never wanted to build.
The danger in our own stories
The fatal flaw of idealism is the belief that it can ever be pure. To despair that the world treats you poorly because you are an idealist requires you to believe that you are only an idealist. But that's not possible. No one can be as internally simple as Marianne and Elinor are portrayed at the start of Sense and Sensibility. Indeed, the point of the novel is that each sister learns from the other to moderate her approach to life, to see herself as a more complex individual -- to become more fully human.
Choosing to see yourself as an idealist or a realist is like choosing to see yourself as rich or poor. Everybody knows somebody who claims to be poor but travels a lot, or who has plenty of money but also has health issues nobody would want to face, or who is always in between jobs but has lots of free time to devote to their passions. Billions of people today -- like me, and probably like you --- can be legitimately considered rich by some and poor by others. This is nothing new. There have always been many bell curves of difference -- how beautiful, healthy, smart, strong, agile, wise, creative you are. Unless you are are at either of the extremes, the way you label your position on any of these curves is more of a choice than a fact. Each of us builds a story for ourselves based partly on fact and partly on choice. The danger lies in forgetting that we have made choices.
A realist's guide to idealism
As I said above, I have made the choice to think of myself, not entirely but primarily, as an idealist. The hardest part of that choice, I find, is the zeroes, the times when caring seems to mean losing. When we idealists are living through the zeroes, we can't stop comparing ourselves to those who seem to be winning so conspicuously all around us. To justify our relative failure, we try to paint winners as sell-outs, people who don't care, unbelievers, the "mainstream," callous cowards. But we know deep down that this isn't fair, so we reproach ourselves (while we reproach others). Eventually we risk becoming bitter, cynical, and even self-defeating.
So one of the things I've been working on lately, for myself and for others who might also need it, is a set of ideas for living through the zeroes. So far I've come up with twelve ideas.
Idea 1: Admit that everyone's a hero
When you take the time to really listen and pay attention to the stories other people tell about their own lives, the belief that they don't care about anything (while you, uniquely, do) starts to fall apart. It's pretty hard to find any actual people who fit the cold-hearted, self-involved minor characters we create for our own heroic dramas.
Let's say I know a person, call her Alice, who seems to have succeeded in the world precisely because she doesn't seem to care very much about anything. If I listen to Alice's actual stories about her life, I might be surprised to discover that she loves her children, supports her elderly parents, volunteers at her church, helps her neighbors, and is responsible and reliable in her work. As I listen, the fictional nature of my portrayal of Alice, and its contribution to my feelings of injustice, is exposed as nothing but my own creation. Eventually I am able to connect with the idealism that truly exists in Alice and speak to her about things we both care about. As a result, my own energy to do my work increases, because I no longer waste my energy on baseless recriminations.
Similarly, if the people in my left ear could listen deeply to the stories of the right ear, they might widen their perspectives on what idealism looks like. Maybe idealism looks like the building of a great wall, and realism looks like experimentation in the art of screaming.
Let's make that an exercise for the reader (including me). Choose someone you think has sold out, doesn't care, is living life looking out only for themselves. Ask them to tell you the story of their life. If you can't ask them directly, ask someone else. Listen to the hero's journey of one of your minor characters. Are they as soul-less as you thought?
Idea 2: Admit that you don't look like a hero from all angles
Not only do we concoct stories about other people that paint them as anything but heroes; we avoid listening to stories that paint us as anything but heroes. That's dangerous, because we are not heroes to everyone else.
Supposedly, the novelist George Eliot never read a critic's review of any of her works. I think she can be excused for this in part, because as soon as it became widely known that she was a "lady writer," her works were attacked without much attention to their actual quality. But today, any person who considers themselves to be an idealist, if they do not want to fail their chosen cause, must pay attention to criticism. It is imperative that we see ourselves through the eyes of others, not as heroes but as bit players in dramas that have little to do with us. The world does provide us with opportunities to see ourselves playing bit parts, but we have to control the urge to look away.
The first exercise for this idea is to find peripheral mentions of yourself and of your work in places you wouldn't normally look. Find ways in which you have been described as a minor player in something. How do you look when you're not the hero? Are you as much of an idealist as you thought you were?
A second exercise is to become the thing you resent. Find a person who might legitimately see you as a realist who has succeeded at life precisely because you seem not to care about anything. It's not that hard, if you look around, to find people who want things just as much as you want them but who have not succeeded as much as you have. If you can't find anyone that fits that description, look harder, because they are out there. They might be younger than you, or live in a country with fewer opportunities, or face challenges you don't face. Find such a person, then read about them or talk to them. Get some practice seeing yourself as the success you think you're not.
Idea 3: Admit that being a hero is not always fun
Joseph Campbell never said the Hero's Journey was going to be all fun and games. Some of the stages of the Hero's Journey (e.g, Entering the belly of the whale, Road of trials) don't sound like much fun to me. But that's in the nature of struggle -- with anything. You'd have those same trials even if you were trying to do something all by yourself, even if nobody else was there to compare yourself to.
Those zeroes in Fradon's scoreboard cartoon are not necessarily proof that everyone around you is selling out. They might just be universal trials along the way to success. Maybe everybody is going through some zeroes, even the people you think are realists.
Think about it. Have you ever known anybody in your life who was completely happy all the time? Did you ever meet anybody who always got what they wanted? Does it make any difference, really, whether people are idealists or realists? As my son says about just about everything these days, "It's RNG." Meaning, we are all living inside a great big random number generator. If you can let go of the belief that caring is losing, and remember that living is losing, and living is winning, all mixed up together, you might be able to get more done.
The exercise for this idea is to list some good and bad things that have happened to you. That's the easy part. Now list some good and bad things that have happened to people you consider to be realists. To avoid minimizing their problems and maximizing your own, keep yourself strictly to the facts in each case. After a while I think you'll be able to discern a pattern: that stuff happens to everybody. Yes, maybe they got the grant money you wanted, but they also had a car accident. Yes, maybe you can't pay your bills, but you are in great health.
That scoreboard cartoon is funny because it shows how it feels to be an idealist. But it's not about how things really are. Create your own scoreboard, and you'll see that things are not as simple as you thought.
Idea 4: Admit that you aren't the only hero in your story
One of the standard responses to any societal problem is the formation of groups made up of concerned people who agree to "do something" about what is happening. They put together boards, raise funds, run campaigns, carry out actions. All of this is good and productive.
But there is a danger, as each group tells itself the stories of its origins and actions, that these stories will make it harder for groups to work together. If we are the valiant heroes of the left-ear city, and every other group is populated by the dull bureaucrats of the right-ear city, how can we see the value in working together? How can they understand our drive, our passion?
Idealism is a hard thing to want to share. When we care deeply about something, we can find ourselves defending our mountain of good against others who would scale its flanks. But when we are honest with ourselves, we admit that "our" mountain is more of a plateau, with a broad plain on top, populated by many other people working towards the same goals as we are. Of course they see the goals somewhat differently, and of course they have their own ways of going about the work. But nobody can own a goal. In fact, the urge to own a goal defeats the pursuit of the goal, because the more people work on it the more energy they can create. Pride is the enemy of synergism.
The remedy I am going to suggest for this problem is, as usual, to listen. How many times have you met someone who cares about the same things as you do, and one of you said, "We should talk sometime," and then everybody got too busy to do it? Or you did talk, but nobody followed up? How much of that was due to lack of time, or differences of opinion, and how much was due to not wanting to share your goal with anyone?
The exercise for this idea is to think of someone who is working towards the same or similar goals as yourself, and take the time to listen to the story of what they are doing and why. Talk to them; ask them questions; read things they've written; talk about a project you might do together. Find a way to share your passion with them, not in the sense of telling them about it, but in the sense of letting them have some of what you hope to achieve.
Idea 5: Admit that other heroes came before you
Another thing I've noticed about idealists is that they are often also chronocentrists, that is, people who believe that whatever time they are living through is unprecedented. This is another manifestation of the Elsa paradox, that in order to tell ourselves the story of the challenges we face, our own challenges must be more dramatic than the challenges faced by anyone else in history.
I see this frequently in relation to the current environmental crisis. The fact that people have faced ecological devastation many times in human history seems to be often put aside as irrelevant. But I don't believe the situation was any less challenging during the Black Death, or during the North American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, or during the desertifications that destroyed ancient societies, or when ninety percent of the Native American population died during the Columbian Exchange. In fact, scientists believe the entire human species has experienced severe bottlenecks in the distant past, with the total population possibly falling as low as ten thousand individuals. You might say that our age is different because all of life on earth is threatened, but that has happened several times in the past as well.
Every challenge is unique, as we are all unique, but no challenge is more important than any other. It's not so much a great transition as it is our transition. It is the story in which we are the heroes. But that doesn't mean ours is the only story anyone has ever told. It's arrogant and disrespectful to our ancestors to pretend that nothing they experienced mattered. And as our ancestors would be happy to tell us, pride goeth before a fall. When we pay no attention to the past we can learn nothing from it.
To give one example of what we can learn, the variability selection hypothesis in evolutionary theory suggests that human beings have evolved through many periods of change in climate and ecology, and that those changes have created an adaptability that persists to the present day. If we can learn more about how humans have adapted, genetically and culturally, to environmental change, we can use that knowledge to increase our adaptability in the present crisis.
The agricultural lands of the Middle Eastern Fertile Crescent experienced ancient droughts that brought sophisticated societies to their knees. A recent article in Science Daily describes a study examining evidence of these crises.
Dr. Simone Riehl of Tübingen University's Institute for Archaeological Science ... and her team analyzed grains of barley up to 12,000 years old from 33 locations across the Fertile Crescent to ascertain if they had had enough water while growing and ripening. Riehl found that periods of drought had had noticeable and widely differing effects on agriculture and societies in the Ancient Near East, with settlements finding a variety of ways to deal with the problem. ... The findings give archaeologists clues as to how early agricultural societies dealt with climate fluctuations and differing local environments. "They can also help evaluate current conditions in regions with a high risk of crop failures," Riehl adds.If we allow those who acted in the stories of the past to be the heroes of their own stories, there is much they can teach us. This is true with any goal you might care about, whether it's climate change or peacemaking or sustainable development. Someone in the past cared about the same thing you care about, and you can learn from what they did.
The exercise for this idea is to learn more about whoever cared about or faced the problems you care about in the past. Don't just learn the facts; look for the stories of the people who came before you. Find their own words, if you can. If they are still alive, see if you can interview them. Listen to them as you would listen to the hero of an epic tale. What can you learn that you can apply to your journey?
Idea 6: Seek downward social comparison
One of the challenges of getting through the zeroes is watching the people around you having more -- beautiful, well-maintained places to live, expensive furniture, meals at fancy restaurants, trips, constantly replaced fancy gadgets, and so on. Social comparison is a constant in human life. We can't help doing it, but we can work on how we do it. We can pay attention to what and whom we pay attention to.
For example, according to published research, the more people watch television, the more they engage in upward social comparison, leading to dissatisfaction with their current financial state. But not all television is the same. I think I've found a cure in post-apocalyptic sci-fi. After the aliens come, or in the Mars colony, or after the killer virus, there's nothing but grunge and make-do from now on. When I watch these shows, I become so intensely grateful for the nice warm house I'm sitting in, the clean clothes I'm wearing, and the food waiting to be eaten in my kitchen, that I stop caring about what the realists have.
I get the same effect from reading novels about poor people from a few centuries back. There is an abundance of excellent literature written about people with little to live on. For example, I remember reading about people renting "a corner" in the works of Dosteyevsky. I looked this up and found out that grown men rented an actual corner of a room to live in (with a sheet hung up for privacy). How can I complain when I have a whole house, with multiple whole rooms, to live in!
I don't mean that we should practice shaming ourselves, or feeling guilty, about the things we have. I'm talking about managing our expectations about what is normal, because our expectations are affected, whether we know it or not, by everything we see around us. Why not use the power of social comparison to increase our own happiness and effectiveness?
Folk tales are another great tool for practicing downward social comparison, and for a special reason: because in folk tales money is never a straightforward thing. The wizened old crone leaning on a stick may be the most powerful sorceress in the land, and the town idiot may someday become the king. There are rich people in folk tales, but they are as often humbled or mocked as they are admired. Thus reading folk tales is an excellent cure for the temporary belief that the fastest and best win all the races.
Our exercise for this idea is to seek out and watch or read movies or books or television series or folk tales in which people have less than we do (of whatever we feel we have lost by being idealists). Afterwards we should look around at our whatever-we-have and remember how grateful we are for it (and how much we don't care that some people might have even more of it).
Idea 7: Laugh at yourself
When I was a kid, my sisters and I had a kind of taunt we would use when anybody started whining. We would chant, in a sing-song voice, "Let's have a pity party. One, two, three: awwww." Which meant: stop whining, you crybaby. This worked very well when one of us started to fall into self-pity about whatever slight she was nursing (it was usually related to candy or chores).
That taunt doesn't work very well with only one person, but another of my favorite songs from childhood still works:
Nobody likes me, everybody hates meSometimes when I'm feeling like the world hates me, I'll sing myself that little song, and it never fails to make me laugh -- at myself. (Surprisingly, I looked up the lyrics for this song on the internet, and the internet has it all wrong. What has the world come to!)
Guess I'll go and eat worms
Slimy, gooey, go down easy
Guess I'll go and eat worms
Another of my rituals resides in a very old, faded, holey t-shirt with a big picture of Winnie the Pooh on it. I only wear this special shirt once or twice a year, because if I wore it more often it wouldn't work. (This is a general rule for all magic.) When I feel intolerably slighted by life, I put on this shirt and wear it for a full day. This act declares an International Day of Self-Pity. My family knows that on such days I will do nothing for anyone. I will laze about the house, watching whatever tv shows or movies I want to watch, eating whatever I want, picking up nothing dropped by myself or anyone else, refusing to walk the dog, and generally giving myself the right to pity myself as much as I like. The next morning, the shirt goes into the wash and I get back to life. This ritual is a catharsis and a break from responsibility, but it's also a little joke at my own expense. If it wasn't a joke I wouldn't wear a silly shirt and give it a silly name. It's a reminder of how silly I am to need such a ritual in the first place (but also a forgiveness that I do).
If you don't have rituals in place by which you can have a hearty laugh at your own self-pity, or if you have rituals but they are too serious and don't involve poking a little fun at yourself, you are not going to be a very effective (okay, a very realistic) idealist.
So the exercise for this idea is to list the ways in which you habitually laugh at yourself and at your pretensions and defeats. If your list is very short, come up with some new rituals. Here are some ideas for rituals you might like to try:
- Write a very long letter describing in detail all of the slights you have had to bear. Address it to whoever has caused you pain. Pour your feelings into the letter. Be as maudlin and self-pitying and resentful as you can't be in reality. Make a fool of yourself. Say everything you never say, or admit, even to yourself. Then, if you wrote the letter on your computer (you did, didn't you), print it. Now take it outside and burn it. Watch your self-pity go up in smoke. (Then go back to your computer and delete the file, so you can't dwell.)
- Bake your self-pity into a cake. Then eat it. Salt it with your tears. When the cake's gone, you've had your little fun, and you're done pitying yourself. Since it's cake, you didn't actually absorb the self-pity; it just goes where it belongs, in the toilet. (Don't do this with anything nutritious, because the metaphor won't work.)
- Find the weepiest movie you can find. Watch it. Cry as much as you can. Put all of the sadness you feel about the awful things you have had to put up with into the plights of the movie characters. If you can find chocolate or some other self-pity-cake kind of thing, eat it. When the movie is over, wipe your eyes and get back to work.
Idea 8: Don't be one story; be a collection of stories
Let's say you can't stand to think of yourself as anything other than a pure idealist. Let's say your devotion to your cause is so complete that you can't take yourself in any way other than seriously. Okay, how about this? Are you an idealist every minute of every day? How about when you eat breakfast? Do you only eat the most perfect breakfast? How about when you put your clothes on in the morning? Do you put them on in the most ideal manner? Or do you just ... put them on, in maybe a realistic way? Are your clothes the most ideal clothes you could have? How about your furniture? How about your house? How about your telephone?
My point is that nobody is only one story. Our lives have many aspects. Maybe you care passionately about public transport but you don't buy fair trade coffee. Or you buy fair trade coffee but drive a gas guzzler. Or you keep your carbon footprint low but love a good post-apocalyptic sci-fi show (to the horror of your tv-rots-your-brain friends). Nobody can be an idealist in all aspects of their life at the same time; it's just too hard to keep up with it all.
Another reason it's impossible to be a perfect idealist is that different ideals contradict each other. I remember the dilemma about cloth or paper diapers when my son was a baby. Turns out there isn't much difference. Cloth diapers save space in landfills, but they use energy for hot water, and bleach pollutes watersheds. Cloth diapers don't have weird chemicals in them, but paper diapers avoid dangerous sanitation mistakes. So there's equal reason to rail against either side. I'm not saying nobody should have ideals, but I am saying that the best idealists (the ideal idealists, if you will) admit to themselves that they aren't idealists in all aspects of their lives.
The exercise for this idea is to take a sheet of paper (or, okay, a computer document) and list on one side things you do that are idealistic in nature, and on the other side things you do that are realistic in nature. If you can't come up with anything realistic, talk to some other idealists -- not idealists in the same way you are, but in other ways. Talk to a relative or neighbor who doesn't care about any of the things you care most about. Find out what they care about, and see if you care. In my experience it has been pretty easy to find issues that are big to other people that are little issues to me. One person wants you to stop watching television, another wants you to start cooking better, another wants you to support local farmers, another wants you to go to church, another wants you to protest something, another wants you to appreciate jazz. Find some things you aren't passionate about, to remind you that you're not just an idealist. What you are is a person.
Idea 9: Admit that you're having fun
People who think of themselves as idealists sometimes have such a starving-artist complex that they feel they have to hide, even from themselves, that they like what they're doing. In order to be a martyr for your cause, you have to hate what you're doing, right? The problem is that it's rarely true. Hardly anybody does things they truly hate for a cause. So one way to survive as an idealist is to admit that we are not as oppressed as we pretend to be.
All right, I'll go first. Even though I write this blog partly to help the world learn to work with stories, I partly ... just ... like to write. When I was ten years old, a teacher told me that I had a talent for "persuasive writing." I've held on to that memory for all this time because it's something I like about myself. It is a joy to write here on my sloppy, musty, comfortable blog and believe not only that I'm helping people but that at least some of my readers enjoy and appreciate the essays I write.
I found a great book for my son when he was younger. It's called The Table Where Rich People Sit. In the book, a girl bemoans the fact that her family has a beat-up hand-made kitchen table, and she wonders why they can't have a normal table like other people. Her parents respond by putting dollar values to all the things they enjoy in their life: lots of free time, a beautiful place to live, a deep connection with nature. After a while the girl realizes how rich they are, and how that beat-up old table is a symbol not of poverty but of riches.
I love that book, not just because it connects with my own sense of idealism but because it reminds me of all the wonderful things I have. I remember once when I was talking to a relative, and she was telling me about their wonderful trip to Disneyland. I said it sounded nice (mostly to be friendly), and she said, "You should take your son there." I was about to say we couldn't afford to do that; but then I stopped myself and said, "Well, we get up whenever we want to every day. I guess that's our Disneyland." And it is. Homeschooling requires a lot of sacrifice, but it also has many benefits. We each choose our riches in life. What makes us poor is an inability to see them.
I have two exercises for this idea. First, make a list of all the things you pretend you do because you must do them to support your cause, but which you actually like doing. Maybe you like talking to people, or writing, or coming up with campaign slogans, or listening, or programming, or surfing the internet. If you can't list very many things you like about what you do, then brainstorm some ways in which you can find connections between what you like to do and what needs to be done. The good news is that you don't have to torture yourself to do good in the world. In fact, I've come to believe that the more you enjoy your work, the better you will support your goals.
The second exercise for this idea is to recall times when you have said, to yourself or to others, that you couldn't "afford" something. Restate what you said to admit that it isn't so much a matter of affording but of choosing where you will spend your money (and time and energy). Then going forward, whenever you find yourself about to say that you can't afford something, stop, think, and rephrase. Avoiding that one little word can make a big difference in your outlook.
Idea 10: Forgive and forget
Let's say you've met a person who seems to care about no one and nothing. Let's call him Joe. Let's say you've gone through all the exercises in my little guide, and you can find no idealism in Joe. You've listened to Joe's story, really listened, and there is no hero to be found in it.
That's because Joe isn't a hero in his own story, probably because he doesn't tell himself any coherent stories about his life. Joe is not a realist working in his own way towards a goal of his own, like the city of my right ear or Marianne's sister Elinor. He's just moving along, unthinking, getting what he can get. The Joe in Sense and Sensibility is Willoughby, the cad who led Marianne to believe he would propose to her, then ran off to marry an heiress because he ran out of money.
What is an idealist to do with a person like Joe, who is not even a realist, but is a heartless, amoral barbarian? What can we do when Joe is gaining points while we are scoring zeros? What can we do when it's somebody like Joe who seems to be winning precisely because he doesn't care?
First, a question. For a person to do good, is it necessary for a person to want to do good? Every idealist in the world would like to answer that question with a yes, but every idealist in the world knows that the answer is no. It is possible for a person to care deeply about a goal, to work for their whole lives towards it, to sacrifice many things for it, and then to see someone else achieve the goal (or a closely related goal) accidentally, unintentionally, and without caring. Maybe Joe will do some good things for the world without intending to. Can you be sure he won't, just because he isn't interested? You can't.
I'll make up a fictional example. Say I've been campaigning for years to get the people in my community to each make a small donation towards the creation of a children's library. We've gotten sixty percent of the way to our goal when one day we get a call from the secretary of a businessperson who wants to write off a donation for their taxes. Suddenly the library is fully funded. I am ecstatic that we can finally build the library, but still, I feel deflated, as though the library will mean less now. Will it mean less to the children who need it? Not a bit less, and shame on me for thinking it. If I allow myself to care more about how the goal gets achieved than whether it gets achieved (as long as there's nothing criminal going on), I'm not serving my cause very well.
But what if Joe doesn't care and doesn't help? What if a million Joes don't care and don't help? What if the whole world seems like it doesn't care? What do you do with all of those people?
You forgive them. Look, you chose to care about what you care about. The fact that it was a choice and not a requirement means that you can't require anybody else to make the same choice. You can't be an effective idealist if you blame everyone who didn't make the choice you did. You've got to live and let live, even if what you are doing will help them as much as it helps you. You can try to reach them; you can try to educate them; but you can't blame them for not caring. Well, you could, and lots of people do; but it isn't realistic. It only produces bitterness, and bitterness makes no progress.
Of course, forgiving a person doesn't mean giving them the keys to your front door. It is perfectly reasonable to forgive someone, and even wish them well, while working as hard as you can to defeat the way they would like the world to be. Usually people who don't care about anything are satisfied with the status quo, because it suits them just fine. If your goal is to change the status quo, by all means work against those who don't care. But don't demonize them, because it will only bounce back and hurt you and your cause.
The exercise for this idea is to find someone who doesn't care about anything. This time it should be someone who really doesn't care, even after you've heard their story. They can be somebody you know, or somebody you read about, or somebody in a story. Practice forgiving them for not caring and turning your attention back to the things you care about. Practice letting them live their lives, forgetting about them, and getting back to what matters.
Idea 11: Keep a fire
Sometime in the mid-70s, I remember watching a movie or television show (or something) about a pioneer family. They lived in a small, dark log cabin somewhere in the middle of North America where it never seemed to stop snowing. The father would go off hunting for days, and before he left, he would always say, "Keep a far." In my family we usually did keep a fire going all winter, and even though it wasn't our only source of heat, it was still pretty important. (My sisters and I would always say "Keep a far" when we left the house, because it sounded heroic.)
In my work I am sometimes in the cabin, but sometimes I have to go out hunting for days. When I am out among the savage spreadsheets and dangerous deadlines, the fire of my passion can seem cold and far away. But I need the fire even more when I'm too far away to feel its warmth. So to keep my idealist self alive, I've found that it helps to "Keep a far" of passion going all the time.
How do you keep your fire of passion going? I think the best way to do this is to keep coming back to the reason you do what you do. That's the fire you tend. To do that you first have to remember where the fire came from, which is why you started to care in the first place. Then you have to keep coming back to the fire and adding fuel to it. You can do that by realizing what the fire needs and finding activities that keep it going.
My fire didn't start the day I started my career in story work. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed thinking about stories, but my real passion for story work didn't ignite until I started facilitating groups of people sharing stories together. I had always thought of stories as objects to be created and consumed, but this was my first discovery of stories as complex, dynamic phenomena emerging from the interactions of ordinary people.
That's the fire I keep coming back to: I want people to discover, or rediscover, what they can do together with their stories. I've noticed that the farther I get from helping real people work with real stories, the less satisfied I am with my work. I need to tap in to that source to keep going. When I can facilitate a group, or coach a facilitator, or plan a project, or sit with stories, I feel connected to the center of my work. I like writing, and I like building software, but I need the warmth of exposure to real story sharing.
Idea 12: Remember that your story isn't over yet
One of the stories I remember best from my obsession with the Greeks and Romans during my teenage years was the story of Solon and Croesus. As told by Herodotus, the story goes something like this.
Solon, the great ruler of Athens, set out to travel the world. One of his visits was to the emperor Croesus of Lydia (now part of Turkey). With great ceremony, Croesus "bade his servants conduct Solon over his treasuries, and show him all their greatness and magnificence."
Then Croesus asked Solon a question.
"Stranger of Athens, we have heard much of thy wisdom and of thy travels through many lands, from love of knowledge and a wish to see the world. I am curious therefore to inquire of thee, whom, of all the men that thou hast seen, thou deemest the most happy?"This was a trick question, because Croesus was sure Solon would name him as the happiest of men. But instead, Solon told him the tales of three ordinary men who died in glorious ways. Aghast at having been compared to commoners, Croesus asked Solon to explain himself. Solon said:
Croesus, I see that thou art wonderfully rich, and art the lord of many nations; but with respect to that whereon thou questionest me, I have no answer to give, until I hear that thou hast closed thy life happily. ... He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of 'happy.'As the story goes, Croesus thought Solon a fool and "saw him depart with much indifference."
Years later, the tides turned for Croesus. First he lost a favorite son, then he misunderstood the words of an oracle and entered into a disastrous war. The war ended with Croesus chained to a stake with fires lit beneath him. Says Herodotus:
Croesus was already on the pile [of wood], when it entered his mind in the depth of his woe that there was a divine warning in the words which had come to him from the lips of Solon, "No one while he lives is happy." When this thought smote him he fetched a long breath, and breaking his deep silence, groaned out aloud, thrice uttering the name of Solon.Cyrus, the Persian ruler who had won the war, heard this and demanded that Croesus tell him what he meant by calling out Solon's name. Croesus recounted the story. Then:
Cyrus, hearing from the interpreters what Croesus had said, relented, bethinking himself that he too was a man, and that it was a fellow-man, and one who had once been as blessed by fortune as himself, that he was burning alive... So he bade them quench the blazing fire....And Croesus was saved by Solon's wisdom.
I could have told you the point of this story in one simple saying: it's not over until it's over. But I've come back to the story of Solon and Croesus many times in my life, especially when I've been metaphorically burning at the stake, because it's such a compelling image. It works both ways, too. Whether you are up or down in the roller coaster of life, you can't say whether you have won or lost until the ride is over.
The exercise for this idea is to do two things. First, learn about idealists from the past who have failed for many years only to succeed in the end, perhaps even after death. Second, examine your own history. Draw a timeline of good years and bad years. Then step back and realize that the future has not yet been written. If things have been easy, they might get harder; but if things have been hard, they could still turn around. Don't end your story too soon.
As I said at the start of this essay, these ideas and exercises weren't really meant for you; I made them for myself. But I suspect that many of the readers of my blog might have similar issues with rampant idealism, because idealists tend to find idealists.
If you come up with more ideas and exercises, please let me (and my other readers) know. If we idealists truly want to make a difference in the world, we need to help each other through the zeros so we can all win a better world in the end.
I would also like to say thanks to my left ear for causing me to think about this topic, over and over, for decades. I'm still going to keep sticking earrings into you, though.