The Power of Story in a Time of Crisis and Potential Social Renewal

…this is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. FDR to Americans facing The Great Depression

Embedded in this famous quote is a story: The setting is the mythic wasteland, literally the Great Depression. Heroes, as always, are leaders when supported by the people. The enemy to be overcome initially is not poverty, but instead paralyzing fear. The plotline requires facing truths and acting with vigor so that the country will revive and prosper.

Today my country is experiencing a dual economic and health crisis. We are also in the midst of recognizing that achieving a positive outcome is up to leaders at every level: no one savior is out there who will rescue us from these crises or from ourselves. Thus, we all need to be leaders—as parents, neighbors, co-workers, educators, and those in positions of authority in every sector. A positive outcome requires us to utilize the power of story as FDR did, to help ourselves and others face tough realities without getting dragged down by the kind of fear that brings out our lesser angels—hoarding, advantaging ourselves and disadvantaging others, calling for saving the economy by sacrificing people seen as replaceable, or throwing “you can’t tell us what to do” tantrums.

Yet, at the same time, something wonderful has been happening, a story that must be told and retold. A global consensus of most people around the world has emerged, with substantial understanding that the only way through this is to care for one another, making needed personal sacrifices to do so. This reinforces the teachings in our major world religions that tell us that the secret to a healthy and happy life is to love one another. Now we are called to do so for the greater good, which is the only reliable way to ensure our own. And even with the breakdown of what has been our normal, new caring actions are becoming visible like flowers pushing up through the cracks in the sidewalk. We see this in how so many are helping those around us, whether in active helping, by simply remaining cloistered, or by doing whatever we can wherever we are.

The words of poet Theodore Roethke in In a Dark Time are resonating with me as I write this. The poem begins, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” So, what do we see in the dark? As  we follow coverage of this pandemic, we see our cultural shadow. The cost of income and wealth inequality is on full display for us to face, just as the clearing skies are reminding us that, yes, climate change is real. We have our work cut out for us as a people and as individuals, as the shadow of an unwillingness to face uncomfortable truths is within us all, even those of us calling for action on such issues.

Roethke’s poem then continues evoking a plotline: “My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,/Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?” In this dark time, is it our normal Ego consciousness that is needed, or should we listen to our deeper selves/souls? For many of us, our first understanding that there is also a deeper self comes when we look in the mirror and think, “If I keep doing this, I will lose my soul.” And what this deeper voice reminds us about is not only our values and morals, but also what our souls call us to do and be.

I believe that as leaders today, we are being called to ask ourselves, “Which I is I?” to answer our own emerging calls not just to restore the old normal, but rather to recreate our micro and macro worlds to reflect our better selves. And we need to sustain this for an uncertain period of time as this pandemic threatens to last. John F. Kennedy’s inspiring words from his inaugural address could have been about today: “Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’— a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

My lifelong leadership work involves identifying archetypal (universally recurring) characters and stories that promote personal development and human evolution. These archetypes help any of us develop capacities that are needed to address such long-term challenges: the Idealist’s faith, the Realist’s fortitude in facing facts, the Caregiver’s compassion, the Warrior’s courage, the Seeker’s pioneering spirit, the Lover’s steadfast commitment, the Creator’s inventiveness, the Revolutionary’s sacrifice of lesser for better, the Ruler’s system savvy, the Magician’s ability to change consciousness at will, the Sage’s wisdom, and the Jester’s joy.

Any or all of these can be allies in finding and acting upon your own current leadership calling. You can even call up the one you need in yourself by an act of conscious will. Each also offers a storyline that can help you as a leader—at any level and in any setting—recognize what sort of story you must live and tell to be an authentic force for needed social healing and renewed prosperity in these times.

This work was originally published in Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on the 2020 Pandemic, a blog published by the International Leadership Association (www.ila-net.org).

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