Story Failure: Why We ‘Lose it’ in High Stress Environments, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

Part of both Lenten Reflections series and ongoing series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

The stories, beliefs and strategies we develop to survive life’s most painful experiences inevitably fail us in high stress environments. The question is, why?

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

“People who are caught up in the pursuit of excellence are particularly vulnerable to stress-related disorders.” – Psychologist Archibald D. Hart

Tabloids love it when  a celebrity ‘lose it’ in public. Nothing sells quite as well a fallen “hero.’ And fortunately for the tabloids, losing it is a common occurrence. In recent years Quentin Tarantino, Billy Bob Thornton, Mel Gibson, Justin Bieber, Brittany Spears, Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise, Kanye West have each provided ample fodder to guarantee tabloid clicks stay high.

Still, the truth is, sooner or later, everyone loses it. Only most of us don’t have paparazzi stalking us night and day to chronicle our worst moments. What if we did? High stress environments tend to bring out the worst in us, whether you’re a filmmakers, academic, businesswoman, salesman, or church leader. The question is why?

One explanation is the worldview concept of ‘story failure.’ A famous episode from the life of Jesus highlights just how easy it is for even the most earnest spiritual seeker to lose it and why it happens so easily.

 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—really only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38-42)

 

A Tale of Two Spiritualities

Mary seizes the opportunity to cherish Jesus’ every word, despite village and sibling pressure to the contrary. (Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Vermeer, 1655)

Having such a great “celebrity” under your roof is a great honor, but it also carries tremendous responsibility. It places the reputation of the entire village squarely on the shoulders of these two apparently unmarried women. The eyes of every (married) homemaker in town bears down on them to scrutinize the quality of the hospitality they provide.

It is a high stress environment to say the least. And as the “snake” of the dinner hour grew closer and closer, the difference between Mary and Martha’s responses to stress begin to emerge.

Mary immediately seizes the opportunity of having Jesus in her living room. In other settings she would have to defer to the cultural practice of “men only” preferred seating. But they’re in her house now. Mary pushes past the other guests, and plops herself down at her master’s feet. She wants to catch very word that falls from his lips.

Story Failure

Martha is no less committed to Jesus. However, her way of showing her commitment reveals the presence of a profound story failure functioning in her life. We don’t know why an unmarried Martha is running her own household while caring for her younger siblings,[1] but it is a very unusual living situation in the first century Jewish world. It almost certainly involves difficult and painful circumstances. The untimely death of her parents, her husband, and perhaps Mary’s husband as well are all likely explanations.[2] No matter how you cut it, it is not a happy story and it is a story that appears to have shaped her inner life.

We don’t know all the false beliefs and strategies Martha has (unconsciously) constructed on her painful life story, but a few are evident in her words and actions in this passage. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.) First, we can infer from her accusation that Jesus doesn’t care that her value and belief system seems to include hidden creeds such as: “Nobody cares as much as I do,” or perhaps, “Trust no one but yourself.” Second, we can also infer from her attempt to order Jesus around that her personal rule of life is to always stay in control.  And of course, her society’s ‘scripts’ or memes for how to run a household reinforce some of her worldview. (See, Crash Goes the Worldview: Why Character Transformation Requires Changing Scripts.)

Martha loses it.(Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto, 1580)

This underlying micro-worldview may have helped Martha successfully navigate life in the past, but it fails her altogether in the high stress environment of hosting Israel’s hottest celebrity rabbi. Empowered by her unwavering (and probably unconscious) belief in her life story, Martha starts comforting herself with her preferred coping mechanisms. She knows that the evening is descending into chaos and that no one else cares as much as she does. She knows what must be done and is more than ready to demand obedience to her will. If she could only get her lazy sister’s attention then she could give Mary a piece of her mind and set things right. But her enrapt sister simply won’t take her eyes off that darn rabbi.

Like an adrenaline-charged mouse, her self-comforting behaviors begin winding her soul tighter and tighter with each passing moment.  Luke tells us that all Martha accomplishes with her adrenaline rush is becoming worried and upset. However, those English words simply don’t carry enough weight to adequately describe her internal state. In the original Greek language, the word “worried” carries the idea of being pulled in many different directions at once. Like a loaf of bread thrown into a gaggle of geese, Martha’s soul careens from one concern to the next—the bread, the village busybody’s stare, the soup, her sister’s absence, the tableware, Jesus’ presence, the wine, the disciple’s appetites—until little pieces of her soul begin to tear away.

The word “upset” is even more instructive. It literally means that her “soul is in an uproar.” Anyone who has ever lived in a high stress environment knows exactly what that phrase describes.  It is that feeling of a having an angry toddler or an out of control teenager in your soul. And it is the very state of being that now has Martha squarely in its jaws.

Two Phases of Losing It

It is only a matter of time until they begin to manifest in her relationships. Her anger boils to overflowing until she simply has to act.

In short, Martha loses it …on JESUS!

Even the most fervent filmmaker, professor, or pastor can quickly lose their connection to God in a high stress environment.
Even the most fervent filmmaker, professor, or pastor can quickly lose their connection to God in a high stress environment.

First, she transfers her self-comforting lie—“no one cares as much as I do”—onto Jesus. She pushes her way to the front of the room, not to sit at Jesus feet, but to yell at him. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?”

Second, she employs her self-comforting take-charge life-strategy to the Lord of the universe. Instead of sitting at Jesus feet and listening to what he has to say, Martha is now the one issuing the orders. “Tell her to come help me!” she commands.

Like everyone who loses it, Martha’s “Adrenaline Induced Psychosis” has only served to bring out the worst in her. Like a high-tempered filmmaker who “loses it” on set, a passive-aggressive academic who sabotages a rival’s tenure review, or the ever-smiling pastor who browbeats his family at home, her soul-deadening strategy has failed the test of thriving in a high stress environment.

We all develop stories we tell ourselves about life, God and others to help us cope with the pain of living in a fallen world. These unconscious narratives form the foundation of a false worldview from which we develop specific strategies to comfort ourselves from past wounds and protect ourselves from further harm.

The bad news is that high stress environments bring these lies and strategies to the surface like silver in the crucible. Veins coursing with adrenaline, our fight or flight reflex kicks in and we compulsively turn to the comfort and/or protect ourself like that mouse in a snake cage.  The results are never good.

The good news is that this same crucible makes our largely unconscious worldview visible. Once we’re aware of the false story we are living we can begin address them in our day-to-day lives. Just listen to your own “self-talk” the next time you’re in a high stress environment and you will begin to piece together some of the false story you are living. (More on this in future posts.)

A Prescription for Adrenaline Induced Psychosis

The better news it that it is possible to follow Jesus into a way of life that exposes these lies and strategies before they destroy us. We can develop a personalized plan of spiritual disciplines to help identify, replace the specific lies with truth, and our unique self-defeating strategies with new life-giving ones. (More on this later as well.)

Through personalized soul-nourishing spiritual practices, we can learn to live a better story.

Through personalized soul-nourishing spiritual practices, we can learn to live a better story. Such practices renew our minds, transform our hearts, and better align our worldview with God’s great story of love and redemption.

Like Jesus, we can even arm ourselves with an arsenal of specific Scriptural truths and character-strengthening practices that prepare us to parry the fiery darts of the evil one, and overcome the specific temptations where we are most vulnerable.

Some of the most foundational truths of the worldview shift  everyone requires to thrive spiritually in a high stress environment are found in Jesus’ response to Mary’s “losing it’ episode. One one level they are specific to Martha’s particular lies and strategies. On another level, they apply to all of us.

The first truth is that God is not angry at us when we ‘lose it.” Instead, he is full of compassion. He begins his response with the double use of her name—“Martha, Martha”—a cultural idiom for endearment. It is certainly not the reaction Martha anticipated.  In fact, his gentle touch completely disarms her. Suddenly becoming self-aware of the scene she is causing in front of the very people she is trying to impress, (trust me, I’ve been there), her indignation drains from her face like a deflated balloon.

For the first time Martha looks into Jesus’ eyes. Instead of finding the anger/compliance response her take-charge strategy has produced in the past, she finds something altogether different. Jesus meets her bullying with unadulterated compassion.

He has been ready for this moment. He knows her story better then she does.  With a knowing smile, Jesus shakes his head at his zealous follower and replies:

“You are worried and upset about so many things. But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”

This is the second truth Jesus wants Martha (and us) to grasp–no one can take away your connection to God, but you. Like Curly’s advise to Billy Crystal in City Slickers, only one thing is really necessary. Do whatever it takes to stay connected to Jesus—those practices that help you live your life “sitting at his feet and listening to what he says.”—and everything else will take care of itself.

Double-Knowledge. The Two Steps Forward

This means than learning to thrive in high stress environments involves at least two different processes.

First, we need to discover which spiritual disciplines best help us stay connected to God in the midst of the battle. This is a very personalized process involving a great deal of trial and error (and, yes, failure.)  We’ll come back to this theme later.

Second, we need to go on the journey of discovering WHY we keep blowing up and self-sabotaging.  Spiritual directors through the centuries have discerned what they came to call the principle of double-knowledge: We can only know God as well as we know ourselves, but we can only know ourselves as well as we know God. I know that sounds like a Catch-22. But believe me, it’s not. Like the right and the left pedals of a bicycle we need to keep pumping both sides of this process to get anywhere.   Only as we get to know God and his love will will begin to understand our own story better. And only as we come to know our own story better, will we become more open to the love of God.

Next Week:
Casablanca and the Transforming Love of God
See Also
Fight Club: Why Our Unreliable Narrator is Always Getting Us Into Trouble
 The Volcano in Your Backyard: The Micro-Worldview of a Honeymoon from Hell

 


[1] Martha is always mentioned first, so she is most likely the older of the two. It was their younger brother Lazarus who Jesus raised from the dead (John 11).

[2] It is also possible that Martha and Mary’s singleness is deliberate. Scholars note that a Jewish apocalyptic sect known as the Essenes (who may have helped train John the Baptist) had a strong presence in Bethany and encouraged celibacy. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus could have been older members of this community rather than younger widows and/or orphans. Still, if their singleness is intentional, that makes it highly unusual and stressful in its own way as well.

 

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The Intelligence of Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How Storytelling Rewires Us

Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

by Maria Popova in Brainpickings

Martha C. Nussbaum
Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, who holds appointments in both the philosophy department and the law school.

“The power of ‘the Eye of the Heart,’ which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions,” the great British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher wrote in his 1973 meditation on how we know what we know. He was responding to the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi who, seven centuries earlier, extolled “the eye of the heart” as seventy-fold more seeing than the “sensible eyes” of the intellect. To the intellectually ambitious, this might sound like a squishy notion — or a line best left to The Little Prince. But as contemporary scientists continue to shed light on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to disease, it is becoming increasingly clear that our emotional lives are equipped with a special and non-negligible kind of bodily and cognitive intelligence.

The nature of that intelligence and how we can harness its power is what Martha Nussbaum, whom I continue to consider the most compelling and effective philosopher of our time, examines in her magnificent 2001 book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (public library). Titled after Proust’s conception of the emotions as “geologic upheavals of thought,” Nussbaum’s treatise offers a lucid counterpoint to the old idea that our emotions are merely animal energies or primal impulses wholly separate from our cognition. Instead, she argues that they are a centerpiece of moral philosophy and that any substantive theory of ethics necessitates a substantive understanding of the emotions.

Nussbaum writes:

A lot is at stake in the decision to view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to the perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and if they contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance, they cannot, for example, easily be sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment, as so often they have been in the history of philosophy. Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning. We cannot plausibly omit them, once we acknowledge that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice. We will have to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear, and the role these tumultuous experiences play in thought about the good and the just.

[…]

Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

One of Nussbaum’s central points is that the complex cognitive structure of the emotions has a narrative form — that is, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we feel shape our emotional and ethical reality, which of course is the great psychological function of literature and the reason why art can function as a form of therapy. What emerges is an intelligent manifesto for including the storytelling arts in moral philosophy.

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Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last, by Maria Popova

Wisdom from a prolific novelist, graphic novelist, non-fiction writer and screenwriter (O, and did we mention children’s books?)

“Stories … are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”   – Neil Gaiman

by  in Brain Pickings

Would Homeland (Claire Danes) or Daredevil (Charlie Cox) have made it without Gaiman's Stardust?
Gaiman’s Stardust helped launch Claire Danes (Homeland) and Charlie Cox (Daredevil) to new heights.

Stories have shapes, as Vonnegut believed, and they in turn give shape to our lives. But how do stories like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Alice in Wonderland continue to enchant the popular imagination generation after generation — what is it that makes certain stories last?

That’s what the wise and wonderful Neil Gaiman explores in a fantastic lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking.

Nearly half a century after French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the “abstract kingdom” — a conceptual parallel to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate like organisms do in the natural world — and after Richard Dawkins built upon this concept to coin the word “meme,” Gaiman suggests stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does.

Please enjoy, with transcribed highlights below.

Considering the scientific definition of life as a process that “includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death,” Gaiman argues that stories are alive — that they can, and do, outlive even the world’s oldest living trees by millennia:

Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.

On story being the original and deepest creative act:

Pictures, I think, may have been a way of transmitting stories. The drawings on cave walls that we assume are acts of worship or of sympathetic magic, intended to bring hunters luck and good kills. I keep wondering if, actually, they’re just ways of telling stories: “We came over that bridge and we saw a herd of wooly bisons.” And I wonder that because people tell stories — it’s an enormous part of what makes us human.

We will do an awful lot for stories — we will endure an awful lot for stories. And stories, in their turn — like some kind of symbiote — help us endure and make sense of our lives.

A lot of stories do appear to begin as intrinsic to religions and belief systems — a lot of the ones we have have gods or goddesses in them; they teach us how the world exists; they teach us the rules of living in the world. But they also have to come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and we want to help them propagate.

Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor…

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Sandman-covers-1
A prolific writer across multiple genres, Gaiman’s Sandman grew to 10 collections and became one of the most enduring and beloved graphic novels series.

 

is a reader, writer, interestingness hunter-gatherer, and curious mind at large, who writes for WiredUK, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, among others. She is also an am an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

The ‘Story Behind the Story’: Making Lit Matter, by Erick Sierra

An English professor reflects on teaching literature and linking it to what students find viscerally and deeply important.

As American society increasingly questions the importance of what we in the humanities do, in the classroom I’ve been able to depend less and less on the grand narratives that long ago motivated my own passion for literature and instead imagined an importance for literature—a story behind the story—sourced not in grand abstract metanarratives, but in what students themselves find viscerally and deeply important. 

by  • The Chronicle for Higher Education

Signifying nothing?
Why can’t we just read a really awesome story, like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter?

In one of the first courses I took as an undergraduate, the English professor walked into class one morning invoking the name of Faulkner as if it were a sacred incantation: “Today, ladies and gentleman, we are going to read Faulkner.”  We students shivered at the sublimity of the name.  Since this trick seemed to work with his students, I figured I, now some 20 years later and new professor in my own right, would try the same trick with mine: “Today, ladies and gentleman, we are going to read—Faulkner.” But something was conspicuously missing here.  Students just stared at me.  After class I overheard some of them whispering down the hall: “I hear Faulkner’s novels are zig-zaggy and confusing and filled with all this weird stuff about race.  Why, oh why, must we read Faulkner?”

My own undergraduate experience immersed me in a sense of the gravitas of Great Literature. Matthew Arnold had claimed that “the best which has been thought and said” had the power to elevate the mind and transfigure the human spirit. The school of New Criticism elevated the critic as high priest of the poem, then later the poststructuralists gave the critic full apotheosis as one who, through the act of criticism, unveils vast hidden structures of domination. All in all, I felt a form of belief palpitating throughout my college education: a belief that Great Literature, the act of engaging with it, especially in its torturing difficulty, carried with it near metaphysical weight. So I was only happy to take up monastic vows to Literature: night after sleepless undergraduate night, followed by eight grueling graduate years at the poverty line.

But now I found myself standing before students far less concerned with Literature’s sublime powers than with gaining tools for a precarious job market and towering college loans. So what they wanted to know is, Why? Why subject oneself to the sound and the fury of a plotless modernist novel, or the white noise of a fragmented postmodern novel? Why all this needless obscurantism?  And why must these novelists fuss so much about race?  Why can’t we just read a really awesome story, like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter?  In response, I continued proclaiming heady metanarratives: “Look, this has been considered by the best minds to be important!  The best that’s been thought and said!  It’s GOOD for you.”  They yawned, checked their Twitter accounts, and at the end of the semester left me a Yelp rating of 1.5 stars….

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Erick Sierra is an associate professor of English at Trinity Christian College.

Inside Out Screenwriting: What’s My Final Image? by Jeremy Casper

Part of ongoing series: Screenwriting 101: Why the Story Structure Aerodynamics Matter

Your final image serves as the bullseye for your film. With every scene you write, you can ask yourself, “Am I moving my main character closer to that final image or further away?”

by Jeremy Casper • Los Angeles Film Study Center

IMG_9752b

If my students were allowed to write down and take with them only one point from my lectures, I would have them write down this simple statement:

A story is… a narrative about a single character who must overcome some sort of conflict in order to solve a very specific problem.

This statement might seem elementary, but if I had a dollar for every script I’ve read that failed to follow this basic tenant of storytelling, I’d be a rich man.

Many times my students think they’ve successfully executed the above statement, but here is where most writers fail. Most writers have a difficult time grasping the concept of “…a very specific problem.” I cannot emphasize how important it is for you as a writer to give your main character a very clearly defined, measurable problem with a cinematic solution.  And, by “cinematic,” I mean a solution that is external and visual.

The solution should be revealed through images not through dialogue. This is why sports stories work so well – there is always a tangible finish line or a physical trophy to win. I can show a team winning the national tournament without ever uttering a single line of dialogue. YOUR stories should work the same way. We know Frodo accomplished his goal at the end of The Return of the King, because the solution to the problem was so clearly defined – the story isn’t over until the One Ring of Power is cast into the fiery pits of Mount Doom – can you get any more cinematic than that?

Where most writers fail is by making the central problem of their story too internal.  Let’s look at a specific example. The following statement is a poor example of a central story problem:

A man wants to find true love.

There are a thousand stories I could write about a man wanting to find true love. In fact, there are so many possibilities that I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know where to start, so I walk away from my laptop and claim I have “writer’s block.”

The above problem is a great “internal” problem for a story, but it’s not strong enough to drive the narrative.  By externalizing the above problem and making it cinematic, I narrow my options and suddenly the writing process doesn’t seem so daunting. So, instead of trying to operate from a vague premise with endless possibilities, let’s tell a story about a man waiting to find true love but make our central story problem more specific and measurable:

A man must propose to a girl before his 30th birthday…

which is only two weeks away!

I don’t even fully know my story yet, but I already know what my final image is going to be…

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s200_jeremy.casperJeremy Casper is a writer/director/producer and recently completed Vacant House, winner of the Silver Screen Award at the Nevada Film Festival.  He teaches cinematography and narrative storytelling at the Los Angeles Film Studies Center (which he also attended 1996). Jeremy has worked professionally in the film industry at Warner Brothers and did his internship at James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment during the production of Titanic.  As a film professor, he has helped develop over 600 short films and is currently co-writing “The Inside Out Story” with filmmaker John K. Bucher, Jr.  He also leads filmmaking seminars all over the world, most recently in Egypt, Ukraine, Ethiopia, New Zealand, Australia, and Italy.  He has several projects currently in development, including his next feature film, which he also plans to direct.

See also: How to Write Everyday Without Missing Your Life, by Genevieve Parker Hill

 

 

Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc, by Paul J. Zak

Dramatic stories cause us to act more connected to the people around us. Here’s why.

From a story-telling perspective, the way to keep an audience’s attention is to continually increase the tension in the story. Ben’s story does this. How will Ben’s father be able to enjoy his son’s last weeks of life? What internal resources will he draw upon to be strong and support his dying son?

by Paul J. Zak, Ph.D. • Claremont Graduate University

Ben is Dying

It is quiet and dark. The theater is hushed. James Bond skirts along the edge of a building as his enemy takes aim. Here in the audience, heart rates increase and palms sweat.  I know this to be true because instead of enjoying the movie myself, I am measuring the brain activity of a dozen viewers. For me, excitement has a different source: I am watching an amazing neural ballet in which a story line changes the activity of people’s brains.

Many business people have already discovered the power of storytelling in a practical sense – they have observed how compelling a well-constructed narrative can be. But recent scientific work is putting a much finer point on just how stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

We found that character-driven stories consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Viewers will literally bond with the characters and share their emotions, and after the movie ends, they are likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.

Here’s how it works…

The Process of Transformation

“Ben is dying.”

That’s what Ben’s father says to the camera as we see Ben play in the background. Ben is two years old and doesn’t know that a brain tumor will take his life in a matter of months.

Ben’s father tells us how difficult it is to be joyful around Ben because the father knows what is coming. But in the end he resolves to find the strength to be genuinely happy for Ben’s sake, right up to Ben’s last breath.

Everyone can relate to this story. An innocent treated unfairly, and a protector who seeks to right the wrong—but can only do so by finding the courage to change himself and become a better person.

A recent analysis identifies this “hero’s journey” story as the foundation for more than half of the movies that come out of Hollywood, and countless books of fiction and nonfiction. And, if you take a look, this structure is in the majority of the most-watched TED talks.

Why are we so attracted to stories? My lab has spent the last several years seeking to understand why stories can move us to tears, change our attitudes, opinions and behaviors, and even inspire us—and how stories change our brains, often for the better. Here’s what we’ve learned…

Why the brain loves stories

The first part of the answer is that as social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts.

Think of this as the “car accident effect.” You don’t really want to see injured people, but you just have to sneak a peek as you drive by. Brain mechanisms engage saying there might be something valuable for you to learn, since car accidents are rarely seen by most of us but involve an activity we do daily. That is why you feel compelled to rubberneck.

To understand how this works in the brain, we have intensively studied brain response that watching “Ben’s story” produces. We have used this to build a predictive model that explains why after watching the video about half of viewers donate to a childhood cancer charity. We want to know why some people respond to a story while others do not, and how to create highly engaging stories.

We discovered that there are two key aspects to an effective story. First, it must capture and hold our attention. The second thing an effective story does is “transport” us into the characters’ world.

What makes a story effective?

Why do our palms sweat as we watch James Bond fight for his life? Paul Zak is helping find the answer.Why do our palms sweat as we watch James Bond fight for his life? Paul Zak is helping find the answer.

Any Hollywood writer will tell you that attention is a scarce resource. Movies, TV shows, and books always include “hooks” that make you turn the page, stay on the channel through the commercial, or keep you in a theater seat.

Scientists liken attention to a spotlight. We are only able to shine it on a narrow area. If that area seems less interesting than some other area, our attention wanders.

In fact, using one’s attentional spotlight is metabolically costly so we use it sparingly. This is why you can drive on the freeway and talk on the phone or listen to music at the same time.  Your attentional spotlight is dim so you can absorb multiple informational streams. You can do this until the car in front of you jams on its brakes and your attentional spotlight illuminates fully to help you avoid an accident.

From a story-telling perspective, the way to keep an audience’s attention is to continually increase the tension in the story. Ben’s story does this. How will Ben’s father be able to enjoy his son’s last weeks of life? What internal resources will he draw upon to be strong and support his dying son?

We attend to this story because we intuitively understand that we, too, may have to face difficult tasks and we need to learn how to develop our own deep resolve. In the brain, maintaining attention produces signs of arousal: the heart and breathing speed up, stress hormones are released, and our focus is high.

Once a story has sustained our attention long enough, we may begin to emotionally resonate with story’s characters. Narratologists call this “transportation,” and you experience this when your palms sweat as James Bond trades blows with a villain on top of a speeding train.

Transportation is an amazing neural feat. We watch a flickering image that we know is fictional, but evolutionarily old parts of our brain simulate the emotions we intuit James Bond must be feeling. And we begin to feel those emotions, too.

Stories bring brains together

Emotional simulation is the foundation for empathy and is particularly powerful for social creatures like humans because it allows us to rapidly forecast if people around us are angry or kind, dangerous or safe, friend or foe.

Such a neural mechanism keeps us safe but also allows us to rapidly form relationships with a wider set of members of our species than any other animal does. The ability to quickly form relationships allows humans to engage in the kinds of large-scale cooperation that builds massive bridges and sends humans into space. By knowing someone’s story—where they came from, what they do, and who you might know in common—relationships with strangers are formed.

We have identified oxytocin as the neurochemical responsible for empathy and narrative transportation. My lab pioneered the behavioral study of oxytocin and has proven that when the brain synthesizes oxytocin, people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate. I have dubbed oxytocin the “moral molecule,” and others call it the love hormone. What we know is that oxytocin makes us more sensitive to social cues around us. In many situations, social cues motivate us to engage to help others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help.

When people watch Ben’s story in the lab—and they both maintain attention to the story and release oxytocin—nearly all of these individuals donate a portion of their earnings from the experiment. They do this even though they don’t have to.

This is surprising since this payment is to compensate them for an hour of their time and two needle sticks in their arms to obtain blood from which we measure chemical changes that come from their brains.

How we learn through stories

But it turns out that not all stories keep our attention and not all stories transport us into the characters’ worlds.

We ran another experiment that featured Ben and his father at the zoo to find out why. I should mention that Ben was really a boy with cancer who has now died, and the featured father is really his father. In the zoo video, there is no mention of cancer or death, but Ben is bald and his father calls him “miracle boy.” This story had a flat structure, rather than one with rising tension like the previous story. Ben and his father look at a giraffe, Ben skips ahead to look at the rhino, Ben’s father catches up. We don’t know why we are watching Ben and his father, and we are unsure what we are supposed to learn.

People who watched this story began tuning out mid-way through. That is, their scarce attention shifted from the story to scanning the room or thinking about what to buy at the grocery store after the experiment concluded. Measures of physiologic arousal waned and the empathy-transportation response did not occur. These participants also did not offer much in the way of donations to charity.

This evidence supports the view of some narrative theorists that there is a universal story structure. These scholars claim every engaging story has this structure, called the dramatic arc. It starts with something new and surprising, and increases tension with difficulties that the characters must overcome, often because of some failure or crisis in their past, and then leads to a climax where the characters must look deep inside themselves to overcome the looming crisis, and once this transformation occurs, the story resolves itself.

This is another reason why we look at car accidents. Maybe the person who survived did something that saved his or her life. Or maybe the driver made a mistake that ended in injury or death. We need to know this information.

How stories connect us with strangers

We also tested why stories can motivate us, like the characters in them, to look inside ourselves and make changes to become better people.

Those who donated after watching Ben’s story had more empathic concern of other people and were happier than those who did not donate money. This shows there is a virtuous cycle in which we first engage with others emotionally that leads to helping behaviors, that make us happier. Many philosophical and religious traditions advocate caring for strangers, and our research reveals why these traditions continue to influence us today—they resonate with our evolved brain systems that make social interactions rewarding.

The form in which a narrative is told also seems to matter. The narrative theorist Marshall McLuhan famously wrote in the 1960s that “the medium is the message,” and we’ve found this is true neurologically.  The video showing Ben with his father talking on camera is better at both sustaining attention and causing empathic transportation than when people simply read what Ben’s father has to say themselves.  This is good news for Hollywood filmmakers and tells us why we cry at sad movies by cry less often when reading a novel.

Does any of this matter to you?

We’ve recently used the knowledge we’ve developed to test stories that seek to motivate positive behavioral changes. In a recent experiment, participants watched 16 public-service ads from the United Kingdom that were produced by various charities to convince people not to drink and drive, text and drive, or use drugs. We used donations to the featured charities to measure the impact of the ads.

In one version of this experiment, if we gave participants synthetic oxytocin (in the nose, that will reach the brain in an hour), they donated to 57 percent more of the featured charities and donated 56 percent more money than participants given a placebo. Those who received oxytocin also reported more emotional transportation into the world depicted in the ad. Most importantly, these people said they were less likely to engage in the dangerous behaviors shown in the ads.

So, go see a movie and laugh and cry. It’s good for your brain, and just might motivate you to make positive changes in your life and in others’ lives as well.

Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., is the author of The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, and Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

See also:

What’s the Story with “Story?” by James K. A. Smith, PhD

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories Students Live By, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

 

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling, by Paul J. Zak, PhD

Via Alicia Crumpton, PhD| Johnson University| @AliciaDCrumpton 

If the story is able to create tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.

by Paul J. Zak, PhD | Claremont Graduate University | HBR

Why do our palms sweat as we watch James Bond fight for his life?
Why do our palms sweat as we watch James Bond fight for his life?

It is quiet and dark. The theater is hushed. James Bond skirts along the edge of a building as his enemy takes aim. Here in the audience, heart rates increase and palms sweat.  I know this to be true because instead of enjoying the movie myself, I am measuring the brain activity of a dozen viewers. For me, excitement has a different source: I am watching an amazing neural ballet in which a story line changes the activity of people’s brains.

Many business people have already discovered the power of storytelling in a practical sense – they have observed how compelling a well-constructed narrative can be. But recent scientific work is putting a much finer point on just how stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation, including those with whom we work.

More recently my lab wondered if we could “hack” the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors. To do this, we tested if narratives shot on video, rather than face-to-face interactions, would cause the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.

In subsequent studies we have been able to deepen our understanding of why stories motivate voluntary cooperation…

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Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., is the author of The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, and Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

See also:

How Stories Change the Brain [Video], by Paul J. Zak, PhD

What’s the Story with “Story?” by James K. A. Smith, PhD

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories Students Live By, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

Transformative Coaching: Inspiring Your Team by Demonstrating You Care, by Todd Hall, PhD

Seven life lessons from an award-winning tennis coach

We’re pre-wired to understand meaning in a narrative form. Story captures the imagination more than rational thought. Story also activates people’s emotions, which is what motivates people to action.

by Todd W. Hall, PhD • Rosemead School of Psychology

What kind of people do you want to be around? What kind of person motivates you to do your best? To become the best version of yourself? If you’re like me, the simple answer is people who genuinely care about you. There are a lot of ways to show care, and lots of ways to describe it, but for simplicity, we can call it connection. This is why you should lead with connection. As I described in my last post on the 3 benefits of leading with connection, you’re most effective when you start with connection, rather than competence. In addition, leading with connection means that relational connection should permeate your leadership. So, how then, do you lead with connection in this sense?

THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF A COACH

I had a high school tennis coach who really connected with my teammates and me. He started my sophomore year and, in the span of one season, took a struggling team to one that was competitive against some of the best high school tennis teams in Southern California. Looking back, it was a remarkable feat. Here’s an excerpt from a 1989 L.A. Times article about our team:

Redondo celebrated its first boys’ league tennis championship since . . . well, since anyone can remember. “The last one was a long time ago,” Coach Ted Atteberry said. “I know they had not won a championship while I’ve been at the school.” Atteberry, who started teaching at Redondo in 1981, watched the Sea Hawks end the drought Wednesday with a 15-3 win over Mira Costa to clinch the Ocean League title with an 11-1 record.  “We put in an awful lot of time on the courts,” he said. “The kids that come out are not real experienced, but they’re a very hard-working group and very coachable. There are no secrets. We just put in the hours.”

We did put in the hours, but Coach Atteberry was being modest here. He connected in numerous ways that created a team that wanted to its best for him and for us. The root of our hard work and success was that we knew Coach Atteberry cared about us. I knew he cared about our team and each of us as individuals. Whether you’re coaching a team, leading an organization, mentoring someone, or contributing individually to a group, these practices will help you make a positive impact by leading with connection within your sphere of influence.

1. LISTEN FIRST

Coach Atteberry listened to us. He sought our input on the team line-up and the workouts. He was still in charge, but he genuinely valued our input. When someone felt frustrated or treated unfairly, Coach listened first to try understand his perspective. Particularly when there is conflict or confusion, listen first. Try to understand the other’s perspective. What is their experience? What messages are they hearing from you—spoken and unspoken? What do they need you to hear now? True dialogue starts with listening first. That means you don’t think about what you want to say next while the other person is talking.

2. LEAD WITH STORY

Coach Atteberry observed each match, and our overall improvement and wove them into a story. At least once a week at practice, and after every match, he told us the story we were living out on the courts. It helped us to see who we were, and what we were capable of as a team. When we start to hear a story, we immediately sit up and tune in. We’re naturally drawn in because we’re pre-wired to understand meaning in a narrative form. Story captures the imagination more than rational thought. Story also activates people’s emotions, which is what motivates people to action. So if you want to move people to action, lead with a story…

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What’s the Story with “Story?” by James K. A. Smith, PhD

We need to sort out the different sorts of claims that are made about and for “story” in these discussions 

Jonathan Gottschall seems to claim that “Story” makes us empathetic.  In reply, Jacobs effectively asks: “Really?  Does the story embedded in Grand Theft Auto do that?”

by James K. A. Smith, PhD • Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College

“Story” seems to be the new black.  Or the new magic.  Or maybe the new black magic.

Our attraction to story  points to the unique formative power of narrative for good or ill.
Human attraction to story points to the unique formative power of narrative for good… or ill.

This is Alan Jacobs’ concern in his recent Books & Culture essay, “Just-So Stories.”  His primary target is the “just-so” stories about “story” that are now the darling of “evocriticism”–those (allegedly scientific) accounts that “explain” the power of “story” by explaining them away in terms of reproductive fitness and evolutionary adaptation.  According to these sorts of just-so stories,”story” is important because it teaches us empathy, or trains us to have a theory of other minds, or equips us to be able to make predictions–all of which enable members of the species to avoid getting killed and thus find the time to reproduce.  Jacobs’ rightly targets and questions such accounts.  (I would also recommend Jonathan Kramnick’s essay, “Against Literary Darwinism,” as well as the follow-up symposium in Critical Inquiry.)

But Jacobs’ argument gets a little fuzzier when he turns his critical attention to those Christians who have turned “story” into a bit of a cottage industry.  (And I suppose I felt myself a bit of a target here, given the centrality of story for my argument about “how worship works” in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.)  So I’d like to extend the conversation a bit, on just this point, precisely because I think Jacobs raises important questions and advances the conversation.

A little set-up: Jacobs’ criticizes Gottschall’s Storytelling Animal for treating “Story” as an identifiable abstraction; that is, Gottschall “too readily assumes that there is some general thing called Story, rather than considering the implications of the fact that there are many different kinds of stories.”  So Gottschall seems to claim that “Story” makes us empathetic.  In reply, Jacobs effectively asks: “Really?  Does the story embedded in Grand Theft Auto do that?”

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As For Me and My House (We Will Break Your Arms), by Ginger M

Part of ongoing series: How Millennials Who Gave up  on Church are Reengaging Community and Redefining Faith

My initial neurotic thought was, “Is this a test to see if we really are a Christian family worthy of their house?”

by Ginger M • Mockingbird

Tacky Cross Joshua

This past Tuesday marked a day of several anniversaries for my family. Twelve years ago, my husband and I started dating. Nine years ago, we got engaged. One year ago, we moved into our current house.

When our realtor got back from taking over our contract to the homeowners last June, she told us that they were the nicest people with whom she’d ever negotiated a contract. They recognized our name on the contract because they attended the same church as my in-laws. They told her that they had been praying specifically for a young, Christian family to buy their house and were so excited it was going to be us.

Our realtor went on to tell us more about them. They kept the autistic children in their congregation during church services, so that the parents could go worship. Bill (name changed) was a contractor; each day he picked up a 75-year-old mentally challenged man who lived down the street and let him ride along on all day to his various jobs. They had kept their house in immaculate shape and spent every Saturday working on their yard.

When we looked at the house and in subsequent visits to the house for inspection, I noticed on the front door a cross with “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15) inscribed on it. I really didn’t think all that much of it (because these kind people definitely seemed to be legitimately serving the Lord) until we arrived on moving day and it was still there. While I grew up going to church every Sunday, my family certainly had no bible verses displayed anywhere in our house, especially not on our front door.

Needless to say, I wanted that bible verse cross off my new front door. We arrived on moving day as they were finishing loading up their cars. As they packed their final things, I kept waiting for them to grab the cross.

They left without it.

My initial neurotic thought was “Is this a test to see if we really are a Christian family worthy of their house?”

My second thought was, “Are you really a Christian? You claim to believe the bible! Who cares if you think this cross is tacky, wow, you’re shallow.”

My third thought was “How am I ever going to have anyone over with this thing on my door! My mother would die!”

Continue reading

Ginger is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma… who chooses to write anonymously.

The Devil Wears Prada and Worldview Transformation

Part of series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview thru the Stories We Live By

The_Devil_Wears_Prada_PosterThe Devil Wears Prada (2006) provides a marvelous example of the process of worldview change in the transformation arc of its main character, Andy (played by Academy Award winner Anne Hathaway).

Andy’s post-college ambition to become a hard journalist is thrown a serious curve when she unexpectedly lands a prestigious job as the #2 personal assistant to New York’s most powerful fashion magazine editor, Amanda Priestly (Academy Award winner Meryl Streep). Priestly, her right hand man (Academy Award nominee Stanley Tucci), and her #1 personal assistant (Golden Globe winner Emily Blunt) create a workplace culture whose rule of life challenges and demeans Andy’s value and belief system.

Soon Andy accepts and then begins following the scripts provided by her new social environment. The fashion industry’s story opens up new plausibility structures for Andy’s decision-making. Her drive to succeed subtly shifts from her original goal of hard journalism to pursuing the goals of Amanda Priestly. Her journey toward the dark side begins with a single dress. But will it forever dominate her destiny?

The embed codes are no longer available from Hulu, but here are the links to the clips.

1) Andy Encounters her new fashion magazine boss                     (http://www.hulu.com/watch/13036)

2) Andy has no problem not fitting in with fashion industry       (http://www.hulu.com/watch/12450 )

3) Andy discovers that her value and belief system isn’t as independent as she thinks  (http://www.hulu.com/watch/13046 )

4) The rule of life in Andy’s new social begins to wear down her self-esteem          (http://www.hulu.com/watch/13030)

5) Andy takes the first step on her transformation journey        (http://www.hulu.com/watch/13009)

Questions:

  1. In what specific ways is Andy’s worldview changing?
  2. What is causing the change?
  3. Have you ever been socialized into a new worldview?

_________

© Twentieth Century Fox, 2006. Directed by David Frankel. Novel by Lauren Weisenberger. Adapted screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna (Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay by WGA and BAFTA).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s

Part of ongoing series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview thru the Stories We Live By

By changing the foundational story of Rick’s life from that of a self-centered love-betrayed to the story of a other-centered love renewed, Ilsa transforms Rick’s values and rule of life as well. 

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

urlSince its release over seventy years ago, Casablanca has grown to become one of the most beloved films in the history of American cinema. Winner of three 1942 Academy Awards in (best picture, best writing, and best director)  Casablanca is now recognized by the Writers Guild of America as the greatest screenplay of all time, and by the American Film Institute as the second greatest American movie ever.[1] Even in the high-tech world of Blu-ray players and streaming video, this black-and-white masterpiece remains enduring favorite with contemporary audiences and critics alike.

Casablanca also provides a compelling example of the four levels of worldview, and how change at the story level can lead to dramatic change in every level of worldview. Character development (both cinematic and moral) “flows” from the hidden recesses of our life story, where our unexamined presuppositions about reality form a worldview that guides our life in ways we rarely think about in our day-to-day existence. In life and great films, we experience our worldview on four overlapping, but distinguishable levels. [2]

Four Levels of Worldview

Level 1) Actions and Behaviors: The countless personal decisions and moral judgments we make on a daily basis make up the visible tip of the iceberg of our largely hidden worldview. We glide through thousands of “preconditioned” responses each hour—what to wear, where to live, who to befriend, when to lie, how to speak—simply doing what we do, without ever examining why we do them. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred these decisions predictably emerge from the lower levels of our worldview, usually without any conscious awareness of why we make them.

Level 2) Rule of Life: The next level of our worldview is found in the rules and roles defined for us in the traditions and ‘scripts’ society develops to maintain equilibrium, or the personal strategies developed by us to cope with the difficulties of life. At this level our worldview provides a ‘rule of life” that defines our relationships, and the boundaries and maxims we use to guide our own personal behavior.  The clothes we buy, the worship we express, and even the words we use, are dictated by cultural expectations and personal habits far beyond our normal self-awareness.

The countless decisions we make each day are but the visible tip of the iceberg of our largely hidden worldview.
The countless decisions we make each day are but the visible tip of the iceberg of our largely hidden worldview.

3) Value and Belief System: The rules and roles we follow on a daily basis are normally based upon a presuppositional value and beliefs system that undergird these conventions, (once again, usually sub-consciously.) These principles, doctrines, aphorisms, and symbols are the often unspoken “commanding truths, which define the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ of our experience, and accordingly, the good and evil…” [3] They provide the language and categories by which we unconsciously interpret reality and make sense out of our experiences of our life.

Level 4) Stories and ‘Scriptures’: The deepest level of our worldview is normally found in the stories of our life-shaping personal experiences and our community’s authoritative ‘scriptures’ that form the basis of our principles and strategies for living. The three upper levels are “embedded within narratives that often have overlapping themes and various myths that often reinforce common ideals.” [4] The personal and corporate stories we live by are self-evidently true to us (even if they are, in fact, hopelessly false). To question them is to question reality itself. [5]

Constructing a False Worldview

At first glance Rick seems the model narcissist, longing only to catch the only plane out of Casablanca while sticking his neck out for nobody.
At first glance Rick seems the model narcissist, longing only to catch the last plane out of Casablanca while sticking his neck out for nobody.

Casablanca provides a beautiful example of all four levels of this process. Originally entitled, “Everyone Meets at Rick’s,” this masterpiece traces the worldview transformation of American expatriate and nightclub owner, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Set against the backdrop of Nazi-controlled but unoccupied north African territories of Vichy France during WWII, the movie opens with a bitter and cynical Rick Blaine making his daily decisions (level 1) out of a fairly consistent rule of life (level 2).  He never drinks with customers, never commits to a woman, never takes sides in a political debate, and never intervenes to help others. His narcissistic value and belief system (level 3) leaves little room for anyone but himself, his alcoholism, his business, and his business partner, Sam.  His value system (level 3) is clearly expressed in his famous rule of life (level 2), “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Captain Louis Renault is the first to recognize a deeper story rumbling beneath Rick's cynical shell
Captain Louis Renault is the first to recognize a deeper story rumbling beneath Rick’s cynical shell

However, as the movie progresses we learn that Rick’s worldview wasn’t always so jaded.  In fact, both French prefect Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) and Nazi Gestapo Major, Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) express concern that Rick’s current story might not be his true self. They note that there was once a time when Rick’s value and belief system led him to a rule of life marked by a heroic willingness to sacrificially fight against tyranny even in a losing cause. They don’t want Rick returning to this old rule of life by aiding Czech freedom fighter Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) in his attempt to escape Casablanca (and the Nazi) by means of a pair of stolen letters of transit granting the bearers free passage on a flight to neutral Portugal.

Movie Clip 1: Captain Louis Renault Accuses Rick of a Deeper Story

The beautiful and enchanting Ilsa Lund stole Rick’s heart in a whirlwind Paris romance Paris only to break it as the German tanks rolled into Paris.
The beautiful and enchanting Ilsa Lund stole Rick’s heart in a whirlwind Paris romance Paris only to break it as the German tanks rolled into Paris.

What Louis doesn’t know, is that Rick’s current rule of life and value system are driven by a heart-wrenching story (level 4). Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a beautiful and enchanting Norwegian once stole Rick’s heart in a whirlwind Paris romance at the outset of WWII.

Movie Clip 2: Paris

However, after swearing her undying love, Ilsa abandons Rick just as the German army descends upon Paris. By the time Rick gets to Casablanca Ilsa’s betrayal provides the seething caldron of molten anguish driving Rick’s cynical value system and narcissistic rule of life. Like the city where he dwells in exile, his life is a desert with but one goal: escape.

A Different Story?

A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look on his face, because his insides had been kicked out.
A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look on his face, because his insides had been kicked out.

This is the story Rick is living when Ilsa turns up in Casablanca as the traveling companion for none other than Victor Lazlo. Confronted anew with heartache of Paris, Rick’s narcissistic behavior only intensifies. Despite his admiration for Lazlo, Rick refuses to help the desperate couple. He stubbornly retains his “I stick my neck for nobody” rule of life even as Ilsa desperately tries to convey a different story than the one driving his current behavior.

Movie Clip 3: Ilsa Tries to Explain Her Story

Just when Rick’s journey toward the dark side seems complete, something happens that radically changes the interpretation of his entire life story. With the Nazi’s closing in and their every effort to escape Casablanca thwarted, the stolen letters of transit in Rick’s possession are now Isla and Lazlo’s only hope. A desperate Ilsa turns up at Rick’s apartment intent to do anything to obtain them.

Movie Clip 4: Midnight at Rick’s apartment

Ilsa’s startling admission begins to change Rick’s worldview at every level.
Ilsa’s startling admission begins to change Rick’s worldview at every level.

Ilsa’s startling admission that she still loves Rick begins to change Rick’s worldview at every level. He now knows that Ilsa left him behind in Paris only because she learned that Lazlo, her husband, was still alive. She was not living a story of a self-centered love betrayed, but rather one of heroic sacrifice. While no one yet realizes it, this new story of a sacrificial love-renewed (level 4) begins to invisibly reenergize Rick’s heroic value system (level 3), displacing his values of narcissism and his “I stick my neck out for nobody” rule of life (level 2).

In the iconic airport scene, Rick’s new worldview based upon his new story suddenly erupts into full view with a startling decision (level 1).

Clip 5: Rick and Ilsa at the Airport

Change the Story, Change the World

At the airport, Rick's new story empowers him to not only give up his ticket to freedom, but Ilsa as well.
At the airport, Rick’s new story empowers him to not only give up his ticket to freedom, but Ilsa as well.

It turns out that Captain Louis Renault was right about Rick all along. The real Rick Blaine is, in fact, a hero. The pain of losing Ilsa had created a false life narrative, but once he knew the real story, his value system and rule of life came back on line. Rick decides to give away his tickets to freedom to Ilsa and her husband (level 1), because he has (re)embraced his rule of life of to fight against tyranny even in a losing cause (level 2), rooted in his rediscovered value of self-sacrificing heroism (level 3), birthed by his true life story (Level 4). By changing the foundational story of Rick’s life from that of a self-centered love-betrayed to a story of an other-centered love renewed, Isla transforms Rick’s values and rule of life as well. He now sticks his neck for everybody, even the husband of the woman he loves.

In the end, the power of Rick’s true story is becomes so compelling it returns Louis to his own true story, values, and rule of life.

Movie clip 6: A beautiful friendship

Everyone Meets at Rick’s

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“This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” In the end, even Louis is caught up in Rick’s heroic transformation.

One reason why Casablanca resonates so deeply with audiences is our strong identification with Rick. We have all been hurt deeply. We all develop belief systems and strategies to protect ourselves from further pain. We all know what it is like to have those rules of life sabotage our heroic journey. We all know what it is like to be trapped in a life story that hurts everyone around us and yet we are powerless to change.  We all want to believe that we are the master of our own fate, freely making our own choices at any given moment, when in reality our unexplored stories, unexamined values, and unexamined rules of life dictate much of our daily decision-making. Sooner or later, everyone meets at Rick’s.

For those who are willing to listen, the deepest longings of our heroic life story may be churning just beneath the surface and well worth the journey of further exploration. Over the course of this ongoing series I hope to help you do exactly that. I’m hoping this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Next posts in series:

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

The Volcano in Your Backyard: Micro-Worldviews and the Honeymoon from Hell

See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Deep Culture: Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

If you Live it, They Will Come: The Blind Side and Better Faith-Based Filmmaking

 

Related Posts:

Using Zombie Movies to Teach Politics, by Daniel W. Drezner

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger

Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on ‘Shutter Island,’ by Cari Myers

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert

 

 

Notes

[1] Casablanca is currently #25 rating on the IMDB all-time best film list. Michael Curtiz, Julius J. Epstein, Howard Koch, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, et al. Casablanca (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1999).

[2] Followers of Arthur F. Holmes’ will notice that I am using his categories for evaluating ethical decisions.  See, Ethics: approaching moral decisions. Contours of Christian philosophy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 52-80. See also, Lawrence Kohlberg, The Development of Children’s Orientations Toward a Moral Order (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press); Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press); and, James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: the Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).

[3] James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010), 32. To be fair, Hunter considers all four levels to be overlapping elements of “culture,” not worldview. However, this is at least somewhat a matter of semantic disagreement between philosophers (who study worldviews),and sociologists, like Hunter (who study cultures.)

[4] Hunter, Change, 33.

[5] What I am calling the ‘Story’ level of worldview is what philosopher James K. A. Smith refers to as the ‘pre-worldview’ level of ‘social Imaginary.’  “The social imaginary’ is an affective, noncognitive understanding of the world. It is described as an imaginary (rather than a theory) because it is fueled by the stuff of the imagination rather than the intellect: it is made up of, and embedded in, stories, narratives, myths, and icons. These visions capture our hearts and imaginations by “lining” our imagination, as it were— providing us with frameworks of “meaning” by which we make sense of our world and our calling in it. An irreducible understanding of the world resides in our intuitive, precognitive grasp of these stories. Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Publishing Group, 2009), p. 68.