Stories draw us to the hero’s journey, but individual empathy doesn’t help us see the bigger picture

Show caption ‘There is no hero we can collectively anoint to fly into the sky and fix things for us. There is also no single villain.’ Photograph: Aurelie and Morgan David de Lossy/Getty Images/Image Source Opinion Stories draw us to the hero’s journey, but individual empathy doesn’t help us see the bigger picture Bri Lee Traditional western storytelling conventions aren’t up to the task of understanding the enormity of the climate crisis or the pandemic @bri_lee_writer Sat 20 Aug 2022 21.00 BST Share on Facebook

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People love to talk about the power of stories: the force of the right hero’s journey spurring an individual into action; the power of a compelling narrative to change minds; the way empathy can break down barriers and re-shape society … I’ve done it myself for this very publication.

We do it because various iterations of these arguments are real and true. National Geographic says storytelling “helps us to find order in things that have happened to us and make sense of the events of a random world”, and that studies suggest “the more compelling the story, the more empathetic people become in real life.” According to the BBC, “storytelling is a form of cognitive play that hones our minds, allowing us to simulate the world around us and imagine different strategies, particularly in social situations … brain scans have shown that reading or hearing 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 toiling at our desks without guarantee of audience or remuneration. We need to keep this faith if we’re going to stumble on through the darkness.

The problem is that some of the most urgent and lethal challenges our society is facing are too giant and unwieldy to fit into the little patterns our human minds are used to making. Our present pandemic response policies suggest some people don’t get to be “heroes” on a “journey”, and many traditional western storytelling conventions aren’t up to the task of understanding a climate emergency that defies any sort of conflict-resolution arc.

In 2015 Amitav Ghosh delivered a series of lectures about how so few fiction writers dealt with 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 it does on the world? Is it perhaps too wild a stream to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration?” The novel as an artistic vessel (and, I would argue, most commercial cinema) isn’t capable of capturing and holding the increasing yet unprecedented catastrophic environmental events we’re seeing.

Writer and advocate Astrid Edwards was the person who first told me about The Great Derangement. Before shifting to her current multifaceted writer-reviewer-podcaster career she was an economics and policy consultant specialising in climate and social policy for almost a decade. She is a woman with a disability, former national advocate for MS Australia and just spent three years on the Victorian Disability Advisory Council. She and I have had many conversations about our waxing and waning faith in art to make change.

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

Since the very beginning of this pandemic in early 2020, people with “underlying conditions” have been dehumanised. In the public narrative of the pandemic, people with disabilities don’t get to be main characters if they’re inconveniencing the healthy. People who are old aren’t allowed to fight for their interests if it annoys the young. In the story we are telling of this pandemic, only some people are allowed main character energy. Part of this narrative arc is about “adaptation”.

Human adaptation is something Prof Danielle Celermajer deals with in Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future, large sections of which were written in the aftermath of the Black Summer bushfires. Celemajer asks, “Who killed the 3 billion animals we estimate died as a result of Australia’s devastating bushfires of 2019-2020? What about the trees, the grasses, the insects, the microbes, the fungi? What about the people? What about our faith in the future? What about summertime? Their deaths, and the threats they face in the future, are no tragedy. We know what killed them, and we know what is threatening the lives of all of us who remain. But our knowing lacks language, lacks law, lacks a path to action.”

There is no hero we can collectively anoint to fly into the sky and fix things for us. There is also no single villain. The fight to hold corporate giants accountable is not being won. Celemajer has written and spoken about how we’re drawn to individual protagonists experiencing personal transformations, and how distinctly not useful that is for understanding institutional violence, structures, and abstract or enormous outcomes.

It is frustrating but essential that we consider the power and the limitations of individual empathy. It’s not just writers and those in the media and 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 Sydney Opera House’s Antidote festival on Sunday 11 September in a panel titled Fatal Adaptation. Co-curated and hosted by Lee, the panel will discuss living with tragedy while staying awake to hope, and feature human rights scholar at the University of Sydney, Danielle Celermajer, and Astrid Edwards, a teacher, member of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council and host of The Garret: Writers on Writing podcast