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Soundbites vs Story: The Fear Factor

photo by David Pacey via flickr

David Pacey via flickr [1]

There is a lot of fear in the world these days. More lately. Much more. Story can help.

Stories ask us to slow down and take stock. Twitter, screaming headlines and clickbait encourage us to do the opposite. And sheesh, that’s a strategy that plays into Mother Nature — our biology. We don’t respond to bumper stickers and soundbites because we’ve been dumbed down; we respond to them because we evolved to live in a much simpler world than the one we find ourselves trying to navigate. In other words, for eons we honed the ability to respond to “Lion, RUN!” the better to avoid becoming lunch. Because back then what you saw really was what you got. The point is: it’s damn hard to undo all that fine-tuned (and previously life saving) wiring.

So how do we uncouple our urge to react to the first thing we hear? By taking a deep breath and searching for the real story. Story is our superpower. By digging beneath the surface action, the statement, the apparent “truth,” story often unearths something very different.

Story questions everything. The surface explanation. Authority. The “official” response. Decorum. Euphemisms. The cover up.

It’s the job of story to rip that cover off, and expose what’s really happening, why and what it means — and that is almost always different from what it looks like from the surface.

Let me give you two examples. Last Saturday someone sprinkled a powdery substance in the orchestra pit during the second intermission of the opera Guillaume Tell at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. That can’t be good, right?

According to Associated Press here’s what happened next [2]:

“Sam Neuman, a spokesman for the Met, said the “as a safety precaution, the Met cancelled the remainder of the performance.”

“A police spokeswoman said the person who sprinkled the powder fled and was being sought.

“The Met also cancelled Saturday night’s performance of L’Italiana in Algeri because of the investigation.”

Wow, I thought when I heard that. Anthrax! (That’s what the musician who saw it happen thought.) Terrorism! (That’s what the police suspected.) No one is safe. It felt like one more scary thing, and from there it’s easy to begin to see a world out of control, one where we all need to protect ourselves from crazy people out to harm opera-loving strangers (who are elites? It’s so easy to run with the surface story…).

Except, that’s not what happened. The actual story [3]is fascinating, and personal, and the opposite of what it seemed.

That white powder? It didn’t turn out to be Anthrax at all (my bad). Instead it turned out to be . . . human ashes.

Here’s what really happened: opera lover Roger Kaiser, the man who’d sprinkled those ashes, had made a pact with his opera mentor before the man died. Roger had promised to sprinkle his ashes in all the opera houses he visited across the country. He’d just done so – happily unseen — in Denver. There’s even a picture of Roger on his Facebook page with an apple on his head (a reference to William Tell, which is who Guillaume Tell [4]is about), declaring that the Met was next.

Now, that’s a story. It’s simple, it’s human, and it’s surprising: it’s about the last thing anyone would have supposed watching Roger surreptitiously wafting a suspicious looking white powder into the orchestra pit. It’s deeply heartwarming. It’s oddly beautiful, which is the best kind of beauty.

This is not to say that the police didn’t do the right thing, or that the people who’d traveled miles – and gotten really dressed up for a regular old Saturday afternoon – weren’t legitimately put out by what happened. It’s just to say that what things look like on the surface, is often very wrong. And what they really are tends to be something so specific, so unique, so unexpected that we’d never “automatically” think of it. Because the true meaning of things lies deep beneath the surface of the human heart.

I was telling that story to a colleague, and he said, “Wow, that reminds me of something that happened to me last week. I was in San Francisco at a bakery, and suddenly I noticed that the people behind the counter had stopped what they were doing and were staring intently out the window behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a row of ATMs across the street where someone was hurriedly going from machine to machine spraying something on the screens. The cashier in the bakery scooted over to the door and locked it, as bank employees rushed outside. The man vanished, and a minute later the police appeared, swarming the ATMs. What they soon discovered was that the man had been homeless, and was suffering from OCD that propelled him to clean the screens of ATMs across the city. He hadn’t been spraying some kind of poison. It was Windex.”

Like Roger, in his own very human way, he was trying to do a nice thing.

But on the surface, it had looked like another scare. Yes, better safe than sorry, for sure. But . . . when we’re on high alert, we tend to read scary motives into the actions of strangers. And yes, there are mean idiots out there, no doubt. But probably not as many as it seems. And the only way to find out is to – yes – dive into their story. Not just the story of what they do. But the story of why. And maybe we can begin to find the those human places where we’re much more alike than we thought.

I’m reminded of a movie I loved as a kid – and maybe one that it would be fun to revisit now in a very retro sort of way, especially since it’s a comedy and sheesh, comic genius Carl Reiner is in it. It’s something you can relax, enjoy, and sink into without worrying about getting clobbered from behind. But it makes the point: what unites us is stronger than what rips us apart (especially when a cute little kid is in danger). It’s called The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming [5].

And it reveals how, sometimes, love can trounce hate. But not always.

What about you? How are you feeling now? Is there a story that has helped ease your pain during this very difficult season?  

About Lisa Cron [6]

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence [7] and Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste 3 Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). [8] Her video tutorial, Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, can be found at Lynda.com [9]. Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, [10] opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, schools and universities, Lisa's passion has always been story. She currently works as a story coach helping writers, nonprofits, educators and journalists wrangle the story they're telling onto the page; contact her here. [11]