Transcendent Storytelling – What is Evil?
Last week I gave a talk on transcendent storytelling at the Storytelling for Social Profit Summit – a fantastic gathering of storytellers and forward-thinkers who want to change the world through the power of story.
In my talk, I walked through the various aspects of the transcendent story. Many future posts will be devoted to the nuances of transcendent storytelling, but for the sake of today’s subject, I’ll attempt to sum up my talk in a simple “one sentence pitch.”
Transcendent stories are narratives in which characters enter into humble, peaceful relationships with two conflicting, unresolvable ideologies.
Transcendent stories differ from Lesson Stories – narratives in which characters must choose between the two conflicting ideologies.
Transcendent stories ultimately recognize that life is best lived (and we stand the best chance of human progression) when we transcend above what we call binary thinking (black/white, good/bad, either/or) and enter into complex, nuanced relationships with the gray areas of life (a both/and existence).
In his book, Everything Belongs, Fr. Richard Rohr writes that literally everything has a place. He argues that it is when we recognize the reality of everything “belonging” that we can transcend binary thinking, a mentality that leads to hatred, war, and oppression. Binary thinking is at the heart of xenophobia. It is fear-based and it forces us to put people into the “other” box. Binary thinking is an “us vs. them” philosophy; it requires that we have an enemy.
One of this year's summit attendees asked the question, “Do transcendent stories fail to acknowledge evil?” Surely in a non-binary world, we still must contend with evil.
The question is a philosophical one and an important one.
Does evil exist in transcendent storytelling? The simple answer to the question is “yes”. But despite this simple answer, transcendent stories still recognize a complex relationship between what we have historically considered good and evil. But if we ended the conversation right there, one could easily make the disastrous deduction that racism, homophobia, and even child molestation then have a place in transcendent living. Nothing could be further from the truth!
In order to understand the concept that “everything belongs” we have to understand that everything has a light side and a shadow side. Everything has a healthy and an unhealthy expression. Just because everything has a place, doesn’t mean that every possible expression of everything is beneficial to mankind.
Take racism for example. Racism has no place in our society, it cannot exist in a transcendent story. Why? Because racism has no shadow side. Racism IS the shadow side of something much deeper.
The most unadulterated root of racism (and of most phobias) is a basic “fear of what we don’t understand,” or simpler still… just plain ol’ fear. But when we consider our collective history we see over and over again how fear has, at times, served us well. Fear protects us; it keeps us from walking off the edge of the Grand Canyon; it keeps us from letting strangers into our homes in the middle of the night; it sends up warning signals when relationships start to become toxic. Racism is evil; fear is not.
A transcendent story about racism would acknowledge the complex duality between the necessity of fear AND the dangers of fearing people who appear foreign to us.
In a transcendent story about racism, a character could simultaneously have a healthy fear of what they don’t understand AND not be racist – both/and not either/or. A lesson story would never acknowledge this complexity. The lesson story would conclude that racism is bad (which is true) but that you are wrong for experiencing any form of fear (which is not honest).
Have you noticed in The States, it seems nearly impossible to believe in the right to bear arms AND believe that there should be limits placed on gun ownership? In our country, one must either be a capitalist OR a communist, pro-refugee OR anti-refugee, anti-abortion OR pro-choice, conservative OR liberal? Our society demands one take a definitive position on everything; it vehemently abhors non-binary thinking. There doesn't seem to be any room for both/and existences when it comes to the exhausting binary wars we fight day in and day out.
But we need those middle ground stories… and we need them badly.
So, when considering evil, ask yourself, “What root human behavior is at the heart of this evil?” And if you look deeply enough, you might discover a perfectly natural, normal human expression that is not only acceptable but might even have a light side as well. Identifying that core human response is so important in transcendent storytelling. Uncovering it might actually help you and your audiences understand (and have compassion for) perspectives different from your own (even the perspectives of your enemies). The alternative recourse is to default to binary fundamentalism which tends to seek out people we can villainize and hate.
Evil occurs when we give our natural tendencies over to the binary, panicked control of fear, the very thing transcendent stories endeavor to rise above.