Stories take us on the hero’s journey, but individual empathy doesn’t help us see the big picture | Bri Lee

PPeople love to talk about the power of stories: the power of the good hero’s journey that drives an individual to action; the power of a compelling narrative to change mindsets; how empathy can break down barriers and reshape society…I did it myself for this very post.

We do this because various iterations of these arguments are real and true. National geographic said storytelling “helps us find order in the things that have happened to us and make sense of the events of a random world”, and that studies suggest that “the more compelling the story, the more people become empathetic in real life”. According to the BBC“Storytelling is a form of cognitive play that sharpens our minds, allowing us to simulate the world around us and imagine different strategies, especially in social situations…brain scans have shown that reading or Listening to stories activates various areas of the cortex that are known to be involved in social and emotional processing…”

I think writers choose to believe in the power of stories because it gives us hope. It justifies the hours we spend working in our offices with no guaranteed audience or compensation. We must keep this faith if we are going to stumble in darkness.

The problem is that some of the most pressing and deadly challenges facing our society are too gigantic and too heavy to fit into the little patterns our human minds are used to creating for themselves. Our current pandemic response policies suggest that some people don’t become ‘heroes’ on a ‘journey’, and many traditional Western conventions of storytelling are not up to the task of understanding a climate emergency that defies any sort of conflict resolution arc.

In 2015, Amitav Ghosh gave a series of lectures on how so few fiction writers have addressed the climate emergency in their novels, and the following year he published an adaptation of those lectures titled The Great Derangement. : Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Ghosh asks, “Why does climate change cast a much smaller shadow on literature than on the world? Is it perhaps a river too wild to be navigated in the usual boats of the narration? The novel as an artistic vessel (and, I would argue, most commercial cinema) is unable to capture and contain the growing but unprecedented catastrophic environmental events we see.

Writer and lawyer Astrid Edwards was the first person who told me about The Great Derangement. Before embarking on her current career as a multi-faceted writer, critic and podcaster, she was an economic and political consultant specializing in climate and social policy for nearly a decade. She is a disabled woman, former National Advocate for MS Australia and has just spent three years with the Victorian Disability Advisory Council. She and I had many conversations about our growing and waning faith in the art of making change happen.

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As we try to weave the story of the pandemic into the classic arc of conflict resolution, we deny the realities of everyone still gravely threatened by Covid. This month Covid became the third most common cause of death in Australia – there were 7,100 deaths in seven months. And in those seven months, all mask mandates were lifted, quarantine requirements were reduced, and employers began to pressure workers to return to the office regardless of the risk. That’s 7,100 people whose final chapter in life takes place after the country collectively decides to close the book.

Since the very beginning of this pandemic in early 2020, people with “underlying conditions” have been dehumanized. In the public narrative of the pandemic, people with disabilities don’t become the main characters if they get in the way of healthy people. Old people are not allowed to fight for their interests if it annoys young people. In the story that we tell of this pandemic, only certain people are entitled to the energy of the main character. Part of this story arc is about “adapting.”

Human adaptation is something Professor Danielle Celermajer discusses in Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future, large sections of which have been written following the Black Summer bushfires. Celemajer asks: “Who killed the 3 billion animals we estimate died following the devastating 2019-2020 bushfires in Australia? What about trees, grasses, insects, microbes, fungi? What about people? What about our faith in the future? What about summer? Their deaths and the threats they will face in the future are not a tragedy. We know what killed them and we know what threatens the lives of all who remain. But our knowledge lacks language, lacks law, lacks a path to action.

There are no heroes we can collectively anoint to fly through the skies and fix things for us. There is also no single villain. The fight to hold corporate giants accountable is not won. Celemajer has written and spoken about how we are drawn to individual protagonists who are going through personal transformations, and how not useful for understanding institutional violence, abstract or overarching structures and outcomes.

It is frustrating but essential to consider the power and limits of individual empathy. It’s not just writers and those in the media and the arts. We all consume, create and share stories, about ourselves and our societies, every day. But there may be a better way.

  • Bri Lee will appear live in person at the Sydney Opera House antidote festival on Sunday, September 11 in a panel titled Fatal Adaptation. Co-organized and moderated by Lee, the panel will discuss living with tragedy while staying awake to hope, and will feature Danielle Celermajer, human rights scholar at the University of Sydney, and Astrid Edwards, teacher, member of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council and host of The Garret: Writers on Writing podcast

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