The Political Power of Stories

[This is blog four in the series ‘Politics On Ideas’. The first three parts you can find here.]

We can succeed only by concert. It is not "Can any of us imagine better?" but "Can we all do better?" Object whatsoever is possible, still the question recurs, "Can we do better?" The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

To think in a new way or manner is the result of a process and not a gift from the skies. It takes mental effort and time. Even for a great man like Abraham Lincoln. The above citation is a part of the second annual message sent by President Lincoln to the American Congress in December of 1862. One month later Lincoln issued ‘The Emancipation Proclamation’, an executive order in which he declared that from that moment on all the slaves in the ten rebellion states were free people forever.

In his first inaugural speech as President of the United States of America a year early however, on 4 March, 1861, Lincoln declared that he had no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. He added: “I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Or, in other words, slavery was an affair of the states and not of the federal government. This was a point of view which Lincoln had held for a long time. Not just a statement of Lincoln out of serious concerns with the succession of the first seven slaves states from the United States of America in January of 1861.

When we go further back in time, before Lincoln became president, to a published speech of Lincoln in 1854 in Peoria, we will we find clearer proof of that. In this speech he claims freeing all the slaves and making them political and social equals is not an option. His main argument, in 1854, is that slavery is a monstrous injustice and therefore should not be extended or spread to more states. But, at the same time Lincoln declares: “which where it already exists, we must of necessity, manage as we best can.

One could simplify by saying that Lincoln could imagine better, but at this moment in time (1854), he did not know how to do better. If you find this hard to believe, think in our times about eradicating poverty. We can imagine this better world, but until now we have not done it yet. We might manage as best we can, but poverty still exists. Lincoln was born in a world where slavery was seen as a fact of life, like we’re born in a world where poverty is seen as a fact of life.

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America abolished slavery in the whole country. Illinois, Lincoln’s home state, was the first state to ratify the amendment on 1 February, 1865. What in 1854 looked like impossible to Lincoln was finally done in 1865. The formal end of slavery in his country.

“It always seems impossible until it is done.” Words that Abraham Lincoln with all of his life experience could have easily said. However, this was said by the first black president of South-Africa: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. The man who became the face of the end of ‘apartheid’, and who did his best to build a sustainable bridge of love between whites and blacks, which give birth to the ‘rainbow nation’.

Thinking something is impossible to reach can be one of the greatest motivators for inaction. If it seems impossible, why try?

Most of the people above thirty years of age which I have spoken to don’t believe it is possible to create a substantial better world. We just need to accept things as there are is a common used phrase in my surroundings. This believe of mine is not based on scientific proof, but based on my personal experience. Out of the conversations I have had with people.

Often I will hear: “it is of no use trying to improve the world.” When I ask people why they think this, then generally I will get one or more of the following three arguments.

They say it won’t work, because people don’t see making the world a better place benefiting their own personal interests. People would be too selfish. Some even suggest, with the best of intentions, that I should adapt the same kind of attitude, if I personally wish to have a good life on this earth. Others won’t take care of me, why should I concern myself with them I am told. Everyone for him or herself and their nearest loved ones is an advice I often get. We don’t seem to trust our fellow human beings in the enterprise of making the world a better place for all to live in. Is this true or just a story people believe?

Secondly, I am often told we cannot really improve the world, because we’re all so different and we cannot work out these (cultural) differences. Many of our current challenges are global and need collective solutions and actions. Even if we all wish to deal with these challenges, we still cannot, because we will not agree on the actions which have to be taken. So, not only do we seem not to trust our fellow human beings, we also seem not to know how to cooperate effectively towards common goals. Is this true or just a story people believe?

Thirdly, that making the world a better place comes at a personal prize. This was stated to me as a fact, by a good friend of mine. She also asked me, if I was prepared to give up my beautiful apartment and live in a box to help a homeless person to a house. A purposeful exaggeration to make a clear point. That improving the life of others is only possible at the expenditure of those who have it good right now. It goes against one’s personal interests to help. This is not the same argument as not in one’s personal interest, quite the opposite. The difference between not helping someone else, because you do not see what is in it for yourself. And not helping someone else, because this will negatively affect your own situation. Is this true or just a story people believe?

The power of narratives should never be underestimated. Our fundamental beliefs are expressed in our stories. In the ones we call fiction as well as the ones we call non-fiction. Shekhar Kapur, a film director, who you might know of the great historical movie ‘Elizabeth’, suggested in a TED talk, that we’re the stories we tell ourselves. He even suggests that we create stories to define our existence. Kapur says personal knowledge can become a weight upon wisdom. To avoid this he has to put himself in a panic in order to get rid of his mind. Out of the emptiness, the power of not knowing, comes a moment of creativity for Kapur.

New stories or ways of thinking how things can be done differently have a chance to come to live if you make space for them in your mind. What we can learn from a great leader like Lincoln is accepting from oneself that you don’t have all the answers. Even in a situation where you desperately are looking for one. Another example of a person who’s brave in allowing this mindset, publicly, is the Dalai Lama. When he’s asked a question and he has no answer, he will say: “I don’t know”. You might think this is the logical response one should give. Unfortunately, in practice it often isn’t. We will get back to this more thoroughly in a future blog.

Our actions have to be in balance with the stories we tell ourselves for us to be able to feel good about ourselves. Stories are important, because the motivate us to do or not to do. They give us a justification for our behavior. The stories you believe to be true are an important factor of your reality. At the same time your story could be totally unrealistic for someone else. In politics it is important to try understand how your own story differs from others and which different reasons there could be for that.

I first started to think about a coherent story after reading the book ‘Mindsight’ by Daniel Siegel, M.D. According to Siegel a coherent life story is essential to our well-being and happiness. Your (in)coherent life story is your reality, the way in which you interpret past into the present. Siegel explains:

The way we feel about the past, our understanding of why people behaved as they did, the impact of those events on our development into adulthood— these are all the stuff of our life stories. The answers people give to these fundamental questions also reveal how this internal narrative— the story they tell themselves— may be limiting them in the present and may also be causing them to pass down to their children the same painful legacy that marred their own early days.

I think many parents can relate with wanting not to pass to down a painful legacy to their children. What probably is harder to imagine is that your past may be limiting you in the present. According to Siegel it is important to acknowledge both positive, and negative aspects of one’s family experiences and to be able to show how these experiences relate to one’s later development. The ability to give a coherent account of how one’s childhood experiences has shaped one as an adult. In other words, the capability to connect the puzzle pieces of life experiences to create the whole puzzle which is you.

Siegel further states that difficult experiences early in life are less important than whether we have found a way to make sense of how these experiences have affected us. He concludes that the ability to give a coherent account of one’s past is an important indicator of a secure mind. The kind of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves matter.

In fiction one of the greatest examples of using the connection between one’s past, present and future is the book ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. The transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from a greedy, selfish and unhappy man into a caring, sharing, compassionate and joyful man is guided by three Christmas ghosts. Starting with the ghost of Christmas Past, which is followed by the ghosts of Christmas Present and Christmas Yet To Come (future). The way in which Dickens told the story can be seen as general recipe for a transformation process. Dealing with one’s past to be happier in the present. And in the same time change one’s future.

As we have to look to our own stories, we have to look to the dominant stories in a society as well. And deal with those stories which are hindering progress. This is hard because we're used to them and attached to these routinely told narratives, whether these narratives are wright or wrong. Deepak Chopra has said: "Instead of thinking outside the box, get rid of the box.” But you cannot get rid of a box if you are not aware of its presence. This is why Pablo Picasso has stated: "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist." Learning the rules as a pro is also getting to know the routines of thought, stories or systems of thinking which are present nowadays. Making the invisible visible and the unspoken audible to the best of our abilities.

Scientist Brené Brown says: “We tell ourselves a story that reduces ambiguity about what happened.” We also like to reduce ambiguity about what might happen. And if we don’t know we often make it up. Our mind doesn’t like open endings: it brings too much discomfort.

If I could talk to Abraham Lincoln today he would probably tell me that for a very long time he thought slavery would always exist, until he didn’t accept this as the only reality anymore. What seemed normal today became yesterday. Lincoln broke with his past beliefs and started to shape a new story for himself and his nation. He painted a new future of possibilities.

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