Stories Of Power
I wrote yesterday about the stories we tell ourselves. I was reminded of this again this weekend when a friend of mine told me about what he was currently reading. This friend has always been concerned with the lives of people who do not hold political power—people without much money, or who lack political connections, or simply the ones not currently holding the political baton. For him the world is often a struggle between the powerful and disempowered, which for him is a battle of good versus evil. You would think, then, that he would be drawn to read stories of the disempowered rising up and seizing power from the powerful. Not so. He prefers to read stories about the powerless being taken advantage of by the powerful. I believe he reads these stories to serve as motivation, to remind him how unjust the world was and is so that he can remain vigilant in his lifelong struggle against injustice.
Yet these stories actually demotivate him. And why shouldn’t they? Given these types of narratives, he is forced to choose between being noble and just and decent but easily controlled, or greedy and powerful and corrupt. Power, in the end, is the measure of one’s willingness to take advantage of others. My friend is a sweet guy who doesn’t like to take advantage of people, so the choice has been made.
I mention all this because it stands as one of the best examples of the power of the stories we tell others and we tell ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether that story is told in a novel, on a movie screen, or around a kitchen table—the relationship between narrator and audience remains essentially the same. Everyone on earth is forever offering everyone else on earth an interpretation of life as it has been led and as it can be led. We listen; we decide; we tell our own stories.
I disagreed with my friend’s narratives, but I did not choose on this occasion to offer a different one because he seemed so committed. And anyway, later he told me another story, this one about his father and their strained and fractious relationship. Now I saw his stories of political struggles a little differently. This story of his father slipped out between those of oppression and of good and decent people being ignored and trampled. I think we are all trying to tell the best story we can, and I think sometimes the most important stories are the ones we don’t realize we are even telling.