Not everyone tells stories, but we all create and embrace narratives as we move through our lives. As human beings we do this for a number of reasons, including making life seem more orderly and secure than it actually is.
For example, it’s commonly said that during a time of war anyone who serves in the military is a hero — in part for risking their life, and in part for doing a job the rest of us don’t want to do. The reality, of course, is much different. People in uniform are no different than people out of uniform. Even during a time of national emergency there are military murderers, pedophiles, psychotics, traitors, and on and on.
But that’s not a narrative that makes us sleep well at night. We need to believe that the people in the military are highly-trained professionals keeping us safe from harm, and we don’t want to feel guilty about not taking that risk ourselves. So we buy into a narrative of dedicated heroes who put our physical safety ahead of their own lives. The military encourages this narrative because it helps maintain their funding, and because it shields them from analysis that might force a change in doctrine or structure.
We embrace such narratives because they allow us to get out of bed and slog through our day without freaking out about existential pointlessness or worries that the people we are forced to rely on are letting us down. It’s ultimately an extension of childhood, where you can’t see your parents as individuals partly because you don’t have the cognitive capacity, but also because you know on a primitive level that you are wholly and completely reliant on them for your survival. No matter how many times a parent hits you or passes out in front of you from drugs or alcohol, you know they’re good people down deep because they have to be.
As someone who tells stories for a living, I see these kinds of narratives in every aspect of life, every endeavor, every organization, every business, every profession. Despite the example above, I also see the utility of these narratives, and the benefit to individuals both within and outside organizations that use narratives to further their cause or justify their existence.
Unfortunately, it’s often the case that such narratives are not a function of genuine personal, societal or cultural need, but rather an attempt to exploit the very idea of a narrative for self-serving reasons. You can see this most clearly in all aspects of politics, where messaging and rhetoric aspire to nothing more than sloganeering and nationalism of one flavor or another. Maddeningly, this kind of narrative marketing usually works, and all the more so when threats of imminent death are churned into the mix. [ Read more ]