We humans are born storytellers, aren’t we? We can make waiting in line to buy gum into a full narrative with a dramatic arc, heroes, villains, possibly even a quest and the revelation of unknown truth. As a way to connect with each other and make sense of our lives and motives, stories are powerful beyond understanding. But we are also easily trapped into common narratives that oversimplify our experience, making it less rich.
As we learn to listen to and understand stories, we also learn that every story has a good guy and bad guy. At some point in the story, these guys will confront each other, and thus the central conflict arises. When we are very young, the good guys always win. As we get older, we tell ourselves more sophisticated stories where sometimes the bad guy wins, but the good guy learns a valuable truth.
Lately, though, I am trying to storytell my way out of the good guy / bad guy dichotomy. What if the stories were rewritten so that no one was bad? Mistaken. Conflicted. Confused. Possibly even delusional — but not bad.
Isn’t this what is meant by unconditional positive regard? That we approach every human without judgement, and without placing them in opposition to ourselves and our fellow questers? Here it is, the fourth time I’ve taught one particular Ethics class, and I am discovering that it’s not so much about creating a therapeutic persona as it is about changing the story structure altogether. It’s about learning to construct a compelling story without the benefit of a bad guy to despise. I know this can be done because Ann Patchett has done it in every book she’s ever written.
Maybe it’s not so surprising for a Lit geek like me that eventually everything goes back to narrative.