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Niedner: The power of stories on human behavior

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: July 9, 2014 6:14AM



Few things rival the power that stories wield among human beings. Stories create the world in which we live.

While we all reside on the same planet, the sense of meaning and purpose that gives life coherence and makes the world around us trustworthy differs markedly from person to person.

All depends on whatever stories have shaped us, from the meta-narratives shared among groups to the personal stories we construct and tell ourselves in secret. Little wonder that we spend so many waking hours tweaking our personal narratives.

Laboratories for examining the dynamics of story power spring up most anywhere something becomes “news,” but few places today have so many tangled story lines under scrutiny as the University of California’s Santa Barbara campus, which recently became the epicenter of a debate concerning “trigger warnings.”

Some on the campus have demanded that professors alert students to potentially disturbing scenes in the literature or films required in courses. They contend that students who have suffered shock as war veterans or who have experienced sexual assault should have fair warning that course materials may further traumatize them with an unwelcome re-living of personal nightmares.

Others responded that such a policy would create a problem with most every piece of literature or film worth studying. What truthful narrative of human affairs, ancient or modern, lacks elements of heartbreak, loss, cruelty or violence?

My generation grew up with Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood. Hence, big bad wolves and wicked stepmothers haunted our world. They always succumbed to the forces of good but not before winning a few preliminary rounds.

Thanks to Sesame Street and Bubble Guppies, my grandchildren’s world seems slightly less threatening, although Oscar has remained a grouch through four decades and the Bubble Guppies must occasionally confront fire-breathing dragons.

I have some sympathy for trigger warnings. It took a week for my wife, who loves comedies and uplifting dramas, to forgive me for taking her to see “Three in the Bedroom,” which should have been named for the Andre Dubus story “Killings” on which it is based.

The Russian roulette games forced upon POWs in “The Deer Hunter” left me shaken and ill, and five minutes into the scourging scene in Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” I had to look away.

On the other hand, can we fully know our world, including the darker secrets of our species, if we never have to look upon the horrors of war or shocking outbursts of the depravity that lurks barely concealed in each of us?

UC Santa Barbara now has a new story line to ponder after a student went on a murderous rampage through campus after posting a video explaining that it was all because he remained a 22-year-old virgin. He could never make it with women, so he hated them and the world enough to “kill them all.”

After film critic Ann Hornaday suggested that stories may bear some blame in this scenario, specifically the movie genre that depicts sex as readily available as cheeseburgers on college campuses, filmmakers predictably shot back.

“Raunchy comedies don’t kill people. People kill people,” they said, more or less. And yet some storyline led Elliot Rodger to believe it was an unpardonable injustice for someone to leave college a virgin.

In the end, we become wiser and stronger by knowing more stories, not fewer, and hopefully some teach us not only that the world will shock us but also that the scariest demons are inside us.

Fred Niedner is a professor of theology at Valparaiso University.



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