Campaign attack ads. Stories of computer hacks and scams. Tarnished heroes hiding sordid double lives.
Newspapers and the internet seem to serve up the worst of humanity all day, every day. We’re fascinated and horrified at the same time. It’s as if the theme song for Jaws is always playing in the back of our minds. We're afraid the shark is sneaking up behind us getting ready to ram the boat, and we can't resist any opportunity to peek over the edge and take a look.
There’s a brain-based reason for our fascination, but that’s a subject for another post. Today I want to talk about the power of stories to help us shift our internal balance of darkness and light.
Do a mental check-in right now. On a scale of 1 to 10, if 1 means you feel content and secure and 10 means you’re teetering on the edge of a meltdown, how uneasy do you feel? How short is your fuse? How well do you sleep? How much do anxiety or depression crowd your day?
Do you wish your “sleepless number” were different? Would you and the world be better off if it were different?
Distress isn't all bad. If we’re never distressed, we’re not paying attention. Our own or others’ pain is designed to help us focus and take action, and sometimes it does and we do. But much of our suffering is self-inflicted and unnecessary. Subjecting ourselves to too many miserable stories doesn’t motivate - it paralyzes. On the other hand, stories of courage, triumph, or plain old silliness lift our hearts and remind us of who and where we want to be.
Stories can be big or small. They can tell of Good Samaritans saving neighbors from a hurricane’s devastation or a dog helping a child learn to read. It can be the story of the original Good Samaritan or of an elderly person with a contagious enthusiasm for life. Stories can tell of a middle schooler’s kindness to another child who is often left out or of someone living well in the face of a life-threatening diagnosis.
If your “sleepless number” was higher than you’d like, there’s a good chance unsettling stories are contributing. These can be stories you read, stories people tell you, stories you tell yourself.
We can notice which stories occupy our attention and learn to be more selective. We can take steps to limit our exposure to terrible news stories and decide to pay attention to stories that inspire us and lift our spirits. Good stories are everywhere - in the news, in the Bible, in our family histories, on youtube, in our everyday conversations.
We can also help the children in our lives find stories deserving of their attention. I grew up reading the lives of the saints. Those stories were pretty heavily weighted toward virgins and martyrs, and I didn’t really want to be either in the long run. But every blessed one of them demonstrated confidence in God and courage under fire, and those qualities I did and do want. We can find better stories than the ones popularly offered to our young people.
I started this blog partly because the cynical, angry stories were getting me down. While we’re not called to insulate ourselves from the world’s suffering, we are called to preserve our capacity to respond to it. Stories matter. The right stories go a long way.
Collect them. Replay them. Share them. There’s so much goodness out there. Someone needs the story you have to share.
Photo Tail Waggin' Tutors, Fairfax Library