I was in a small conference room with a handful of other students. A coveted tenure-track position had opened, and students were invited to attend an informal Q&A session with each of the final applicants. One candidate asked us what we thought about our university, prompting a Latina student to launch into a passionate vocalization of her dissatisfaction with our culture and lack of diversity. Her comments struck me as excessively pessimistic; she almost seemed eager to spread negativity. My own educational journey had been profoundly transformational. I continue to feel great admiration, gratitude, and respect for my professors. So, I was embarrassed that the candidate’s first encounter with the student population was a lengthy complaint without a sliver of silver lining. It even felt like a sort of betrayal, an airing of the family’s dirty laundry.
I spoke up and said something like, “I’m surprised to hear such a negative opinion. My experience here has been really different from that.” My peer tossed a dismissive gesture in my direction as she scoffed, “Of course it has. Look at you.”
As a white, non-disabled, middle-class, heterosexual, theist male, I have spent the majority of my life in the majority group. My default homogeneity extends even to frequently overlooked and apparently mundane like right-handedness and trichromacy. I am accustomed to fitting in with minimal effort. Perhaps predictably, I had never been discounted like I was in that moment, summed up by a detached glance that declared my background, feelings, and perspective utterly irrelevant. I was stunned, then hurt, then angry.
This has been an important experience for me to reflect on, a microcosm of the many complex factors and rapid hyper-reactions that coalesce to fuel the polarization metastasizing through our society, destructive as a wind-driven wildfire. In just a handful of moments and with only a few words, my fellow student and I went from being strangers to being opponents, narrowly regarding each other from across a widening narrative divide.
An Urgent Task
As a collective, and frequently as individuals, we are failing at the critical task of connecting across difference. Every day brings new illustrations of our baffling inability to muster basic civility, much less meaningful collaboration. We are warring camps laying perpetual siege to one another, hurling our verbal and emotional grenades over walls that grow higher and higher, and mutually suffering from the inevitable shrapnel of communicative violence.
The stakes are existential. If we cannot find a way to talk to one another, how can we hope to work together? If we can’t work together, how can we live together? If we can’t live together, how can we live at all?
Tribalistic fervor, self-selected social segregation, perpetual political gridlock, and the screaming echo chamber of outrage in online pseudo communities—none of it is working.
We need something different.
Healing our divisions may not be a quick or easy process. But mutual understanding and respectful cooperation are not outlandish, impossible goals. We can find our way back to each other. I believe the path will be paved with deep and gentle listening. With clear-eyed accountability, sincere apology, and liberating forgiveness. With empathetic, courageous reformation. The path will also be paved with stories
The Stories We Live
Communication scholar Walter Fischer dubbed human beings Homo Narrans, the storytelling animal. Weaving stories may be our oldest art form, the connecting thread linking modern cinema, theater, dance, music, literature, and all of humanity’s expressive endeavors. Storytelling is far more than making things up that didn’t actually happen. Our daily life involves constant storytelling. We are asked questions like, “How was your weekend?” “How did you two meet each other?” or “What do you think about this university?” In response, we tell a story. Many complex factors and rapid hyper-reactions coalesce to fuel the polarization metastasizing through our society, destructive as a wind-driven wildfire.
We need these narratives to transform the relentless flow of sensory input, thought, and feeling into coherent meaning. Without it, we’d be overwhelmed by existence. There are also stories beyond those we tell for entertainment or to organize our daily activities—stories that act as an invisible background to the pageantry of our lives. These larger stories, or meta-narratives, offer the groundwork for what becomes accepted as common sense to a group of people. They shape worldviews and function as the invisible scaffolding of perception, the lenses through which some things, both essential and trivial, are taken for granted as simply being true.
Many complex factors and rapid hyper-reactions coalesce to fuel the polarization metastasizing through our society, destructive as a wind-driven wildfire.
These meta-narratives are often held sacred. They are stories about our families and our communities. Stories about our institutions. Stories about what it means to be an American. Stories about faith. Stories about God.
According to intercultural expert Bradford J. Hall and his colleagues, these kinds of narratives function on a cultural level to fulfill four major functions. They tell us:
1. How the world works
2. Our place in the world
3. How to act in the world
4. How to evaluate what happens in the world
When understood in this light, it becomes clear that stories are no trifling distraction. In a very practical sense, our stories are our world.
Stories in Conflict
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is these stories—along with the worlds, identities, and ways of being that they represent—that are at the root of our most entrenched disputes. If we continue to fixate on topical-level issues without addressing deeper narrative roots, we risk perpetual political polarization, social stagnation, and conflict escalation. How can we expect anything other than a stalemate society if we fail to see how the issues we think are being discussed are intimately connected to our larger meta-narratives? We aren’t just conversing about abortion or gun control or marriage (and heaven knows we’re not drawing blood over the finer points of tax law): we are debating and defending our perception of reality itself, including the very nature of our world, ourselves, our actions, and goodness.
I believe that increased narrative awareness can open avenues toward more productive sociopolitical interactions and a more unified future. To move in that direction, we need to reckon with three “default settings” that inhibit human efforts to navigate conflict and connect across difference: our singular perspective, our simplified storytelling in conflict, and our “us vs them” mindset.
The Prison of Perception
One of the most daunting obstacles in connecting across differences is the intense tangibility of our own perception. As David Foster Wallace put it: “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” And, much as it seems wrong to say it aloud, that experience is common to all of us.
It’s no surprise that so much of our existential storytelling occurs in the first person. We are embodied beings who are constantly being fed information about how the world outside of ourselves is impacting us. I see. I feel. I want. And so on.
Our singular perception is compellingly immediate to such a degree that it can function as a sort of prison, causing us to falsely believe that we are separate from each other and the world. Albert Einstein called this “the optical delusion of consciousness.” Failing to understand or remember our intrinsic interconnectedness has serious consequences. We might consider others as less important, or even less real, than ourselves because their needs and feelings take so much effort to discern. If unchecked, the intensity of perception and the illusion of separation could lead us to view other people as expendable extras who merely populate the background of our own grandiose existence.
Of course, our limited perception misleads us regarding our individual importance. While it may be understandable to believe in your supreme significance when you are, say, a toddler, maintaining that mentality indicates a juvenility that can easily become self-absorption, narcissism, or something even worse.
Fortunately, we are social creatures, made to care for one another. We can make eye contact and have that simple act flood us with sonder, the awe of recognizing that everyone around us, every single person, is living a life as real and as excruciatingly immersive as our own. In such moments, our imagination lets us envision the story of another and wonder how we would feel in their place. Empathy begins to blossom.
And that is one key to unlocking the prison of perception: to imagine the life of another. To stretch ourselves to picture their viewpoint and experience with the reasonableness and potency that we instinctively grant our own. To listen to their story. This is work we must attend to again and again, and it is crucial to balancing the single and limited story of our own experience.
It is also, at its core, an act of faith. We ultimately have no way to truly know that someone else is experiencing what they say they are. No way, in fact, to know without question that we even understand one another! To communicate is to participate in a profound mystery. We take abstract thoughts and ideas in our minds, wrap them in the imperfect symbolism of language, send them vibrating in the air or scribbled onto paper or typed on a screen, and pray that the person on the other side is able to translate the symbols in some coherent way despite the interference of countless variables like culture, age, education, gender, and other life experience. Perhaps the confounding of languages at Babel was simply a garnish to highlight the foundational complexity of communication.
Yet, despite these limitations of imagination and language, it is still by striving to hear and earnestly consider the stories of others that we can expand the limits of our perception.
This may be easy to do when other people’s stories align with our own and complement or reinforce the way that we see things. But how much more challenging and even perilous, to seriously consider the stories of those who seem different than us—particularly if their story seems to unsettle or contradict our own? How do we respond to stories claiming that we, or people we love, or institutions we cherish, have harmed others?
These kinds of stories threaten our positive sense of self and our understanding of the world, and so we react with understandable defensiveness. We reassert that our story is True-beyond-question and the other is False-without-exception. Despite my attempt at diplomatic phrasing, there were defensive undertones in my response to my peer’s story about our university.
Now there are, of course, circumstances of actual narrative incompatibility, and not every story is always equally true, nor is every storyteller guaranteed to act in good faith. However, we too often allow the fear that our stories are fundamentally irreconcilable, the belief that truth must be one story or the other, or the distrust of others’ intentions to prevent us from even trying to hear each other deeply. These efforts to self-protect–however understandable they may be— perpetuate our fear and mistrust, especially as we respond to the discomfort of narrative conflict by portraying one another in the overly simplistic and limited roles of the Drama Triangle.
A Triangular Trap
Dr. Stephen Karpman created the Drama Triangle to describe how, when telling stories about our conflicts, we tend to get stuck positioning ourselves and others into three roles. There are many variations on Karpman’s original idea, but I prefer the roles of Victim, Villain, and Hero. The victim is often the person telling the conflict story, the one who was wronged. The villain is the person who transgressed, the one we want to blame. And the hero is frequently the party who “comes to the rescue” by validating the story being told, confirming the wickedness of the villain and the innocence of the victim.
The drama triangle can be seductive. It gives a compelling, simplistic retelling of events that lets us feel totally justified: “I have been wronged. They are bad. Be my hero and confirm my view as objectively true.” And the roles can pivot in an instant. If someone has a different view on our story, they can become a new villain as we take indignant offense; how dare anyone suggest we may not be completely in the right?!
But the warm glow of justification from the drama triangle quickly proves to be hollow comfort. It is exhausting and disheartening to ping-pong back and forth, painting ourselves and others strictly as faultless heroes who are tragically misunderstood by others, irredeemable villains whose flaws bear no patience or grace, or helpless victims with no control over their fate.
It also doesn’t capture the richness of reality, a reality that defies our attempts to confine it to shallow, two-dimensional depictions. The truth, of course, is that each of us can partially be any of these roles and more. We have moments of bravery, generosity, and selflessness; moments of unkindness or cruelty; moments where the actions of others unfairly impact us.
What we need in order to break free from both the drama triangle and the limitations of perception is to tell more nuanced stories about others and ourselves, stories that create space for greater empathy, forgiveness, and closure. The idea may sound simplistic or idealistic, but telling better stories is a complex affair. Not only does it require awareness and conscious effort, but it is often confounded by our ingrained tendency to cling to group identity, the third default hobbling our efforts to connect.
From Different to Demon
We understand who we are, not only in terms of individual identity but also because of the groups we are part of. This is a central tenet of Social Identity Theory. Furthermore, we understand the groups we are part of by contrasting them with other groups. This inescapable tendency has mixed consequences. Belonging to a group can boost our sense of security, esteem, and accomplishment. We feel a vicarious flush of success and pride when our sports team wins, even though our contribution amounted to yelling at a screen and eating snack food.
But the ego boost from favorable group comparison depends on constructing an “other,” a different group, a “them.” We need that group to be different from us because, without the contrast, the group identity marker would be meaningless. Different studies have demonstrated how this grouping (and the resultant bias towards the group we feel part of) can happen nearly instantaneously and be based on unimportant, fabricated, or arbitrary similarities.
The fact that we favor the groups we are part of may seem natural and even innocuous in some settings. And if we were able to note and evaluate difference as positive or even as neutral, it wouldn’t be a major concern. The thing is, we are notoriously bad at seeing difference without also making knee-jerk, immediate, and frequently negative judgments.
A striking illustration is Clegg and Lichtey’s sectarianism scale. It articulates how we move from noticing differences to demonizing one another. The progression of group-based thinking is as follows:
1. We are different; we behave differently.
2. We are right.
3. We are right, and you are wrong.
4. You are a less adequate version of what we are.
5. You are not what you say you are.
6. We are, in fact, what you say you are.
7. What you are doing is evil.
8. You are so wrong that you forfeit ordinary rights.
9. You are less than human.
10. You are evil.
11. You are demonic.
The most terrifying aspect of this flowing progression is how familiar it feels. I recognize it in myself and in the world around me. We so easily default to “us vs them” thinking, and we desperately need to break free from this ingrained tendency. Relying on some sort of common enemy to unify humanity isn’t a sound policy, despite the undeniable blockbuster appeal of human solidarity in the face of an alien invasion. We are called to accompany one another on life’s pilgrimage towards Light, Beauty, Goodness, and Truth.
We are called to accompany one another on life’s pilgrimage towards Light, Beauty, Goodness, and Truth.
As we choose to focus on the many identities that we share with others, we can guard against our default tendency towards tribalism and the demonizing of difference. As we tell more expansive stories, we can avoid the siren call of the drama triangle and grow beyond the comfortable confines of our singular perception. We can choose to remember that, as articulated by John F. Kennedy, “what unites us is far greater than what divides us.”
We are not doomed to fear and hate each other.
Expanding Our Stories
As I look back on that afternoon meeting with my Latina peer, it’s clear that her story about our university didn’t match my own. I believed I was attending a place of excitement, intellectual growth, and possibility. A place with wise and caring mentors. I felt part of it all, proud of the people and culture, and traditions. I was invested in maintaining the story for my own comfort, ego, and esteem. After all, what would it mean about me if her story was true?
Far easier to make a snap judgment that she was the problem, that her poor attitude was responsible for any dissatisfaction she had experienced. I was motivated to prioritize my perception, cast her as a villain, and settle deeper into my group affiliation (those who love the university vs those who only see the negative). So much, happening so quickly.
How different could that interaction have been if I had turned to her with open curiosity? If I had made space for her frustration and pain? In my defensive, judgmental, impatient response, I missed several opportunities. I missed the opportunity to expand the story I was living about the university and to come to a more detailed understanding of how institutions can impact different people in many different ways for many different reasons. I missed the opportunity to help my peer feel heard and seen and to connect across gender and ethnic difference.
And crucially, I could have done this without in any way denying the beautiful, positive experiences of my own education. I just needed to expand my story, to realize how, with so many thousands of students, hundreds of instructors, and dozens of majors, there is a vast multitude of stories about the university that can all be true to some degree, and yet all be limited or incomplete as well.
Expanding our stories doesn’t mean instantly accepting anything anyone else says as being more true than your own experience. But it does mean accepting the possibility that their story might offer truthful insights and that our story might have room for further refinement. It means turning to curiosity and asking questions like “What has that been like for you?” or “Can you tell me more about why you feel that way?” It is a move away from the simplicity and precariousness of either/or to the liberating—and sometimes frightening—expanse of both/and.
I believe we are meant to interact with one another, in all of our stunning array of beliefs and customs and opinions and differences, in order to facilitate our expansion into truer stories. We need each other. Our fellow travelers are not deranged obstacles in our path but living testimony of the intricate complexity and manifold paradox that characterize a multifaceted Reality.
I believe in a Universal Narrative, a True Story, the Word. I also believe the words of my dear friend and mentor, Delose Conner: “In a world where absolute truth exists but cannot be known, one must live by reason and by faith.” And so we are called to accompany one another on life’s pilgrimage towards Light, Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. We are called to care for and learn from each other as we refine and expand our stories.
This is the process of education; this is the process of repentance; this is the process of restoration: coming to understand the limitations of the narratives we have been living and then adapting our stories—even, at times, those that are most precious to us—to better fit the irrepressible reality that strains against the bonds of our incomplete beliefs. And then, to embrace the iterative process as our new story is shown to have its own incompleteness. Because, as philosopher Adam S. Miller writes with beautiful simplicity, “Your stories aren’t the truth, life is.”
Through our interactions with each other, we have the possibility to more fully encounter life, expand our limited view and approach reality in all of its wildness and beauty. Not in spite of our differences, but because of them. And that is a better story to live.