Day 13 of 40 Days of Story: Is it you against the world? Today let’s name that world.

This week we’ve been using story structure to explore conflict in our own lives. We’ve boldly stared down the external conflicts that chase us and the internal ones that haunt our story. Now, to a third category of conflict.

 

You against the world.

 

In story structure this has many names. It’s “Man versus nature” and “Man versus society”. Some call it “Interactional Conflict[1].” But I like Don Miller’s framing of it as a “Philosophical Problem.” It’s this idea that your story is set in the midst of a larger struggle, a struggle that poses big questions. In Miller’s piece How to Tell a Story he gives a few examples from Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Bridget Jone’s Diary:

 

“Examples of Philosophical Problems: Frodo (Will good win out over evil? Will group interests win out over self interest?) Luke Skywalker (Will good win out over evil? Will group interest win out over self interest? Will benevolence win out over greed? Will freedom win out over tyranny?) Bridget Jones (Is life fair? Can love win out over lust? Can self-love and self-acceptance be enough?)”

 

I’ll take this to the personal level…because I hope you will too.

 

At the beginning of this series I shared that I’ve carved out a career of chasing and crafting other people’s stories, and yet I have struggled to tell my own. So, a philosophical question emerges: Does everyone have a story to tell (including me) or only a select group?

 

Then I shared an even more raw desire: I long to know and be known, love and be loved in deeper ways in this season. My internal conflict has had me asking: Am I too much or want too much? And here are a few of my philosophical ones: Can authentic relationships be found through dating apps and digital platforms? Can one show up with congruency in environs that feel incongruent? And, if I go all Philosophy 101 on this: Can anyone be truly known by another? And…what is love?

 

Here’s what I appreciate about this third form of conflict : It reveals that our stories hold big, brave questions. If we can recognize that–and especially if we can carry those questions with us to the end of our journey–we have the potential to gain a surety in our step, a solidness in our soul that will embolden us in the thousand other journeys ahead.

 

May that be so. For you. For me. For us.

 

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

[1] https://gideonsway.wordpress.com/2012/12/15/the-three-levels-of-conflict/

Day 12 of 40 Days of Story: What has you uneasy?

Today, we look at internal conflict…the antagonist within. What in us tries to thwart what we desire in this season?

 

John Bucher’s teaching on the antagonist in screenplays offers us a fascinating starting place:

 

“In really powerful stories the good guy and the bad guy have the same goal but pursue different ways of getting at it.”

 

Bucher gives the example of the movie The Dark Night. In it the Joker and Batman both want the same thing: to control Gotham. But Batman wants peace and the Joker wants destruction.

 

This same kind of vying between the protagonist and antagonist in the movies often happens in our inner worlds. The conflict comes when we pursue something with competing motivations.

 

Our unease reveals our incongruence.

 

And wow! Do I know this well. Perhaps the most striking example in my story comes from when I was pastor on staff at a church. I was the only woman on the teaching team. My desire when I spoke was for people to be deeply encouraged and ultimately transformed by God’s love. But…there was another force at play. I also wanted to be really good…ok, perfect. Since at that time it was a rare gig to teach/preach as a woman I wanted every word to count.

 

Unfortunately that created an unease in me that stole my capacity to be present. It sabotaged my ability to be vulnerable in the moment. As I spoke I was often stuck in my head versus speaking from my heart.

 

I confronted my unease with harsh criticism and “try harder” self-talk, rather than curiosity and grace.

 

I started to embrace a script written by shame: I just wasn’t a good speaker. I was the weakest link. I let my gender down…You know, all those things your ego gets wrong as a wounded beast.

 

But if I would have let my unease tell me a secret…if I would have had a better conversation with my internal conflict it may have been a different story then.

 

Yet, there’s now. The gift of now…that calls me to pay attention to my current unease…to get curious and quiet and listen for its secret.

 

To do as John O’Donohue writes:

 

“May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.”

May you and I be brave as we listen to and enter into our own unease today.

I can’t resist leaving you with John O’Donohue’s For Longing. It’s a favorite.

 

For Longing ~ John O’Donohue

Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.

May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.

May the forms of your belonging–in love, creativity, and friendship–
Be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.

May the one you long for long for you.

May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.

May a secret Providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.

May your mind inhabit your life with the sureness with which your body inhabits the world.

May your heart never be haunted by ghost structures of old damage.

May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.

May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

~John O’Donohue, from To Bless the Space Between Us. All rights reserved.

 

 

Day 11 of 40 Days of Story: Who or what is holding your dream hostage?

 

All great stories have really good antagonists.

 

No matter how bad they are, we can’t write them off. They may be murders or masochists, yet there’s something in them we see in ourselves. It can be terrifying.

 

That’s why I like to only consider antagonists while at the movies, reading a book or at a play. The idea there may be one in my own story makes me not want to write this post. (The reality is I’ve been avoiding writing it all day…)

 

And yet…

 

The more we get clear on who–or what–is the antagonist in our current story, the more directly we’re able to move toward our desires, dreams and goals.

 

So, today’s post is about naming that external conflict/antagonist in our story. For most of this, it’s not easy. Rarely do our stories play out with the precision of screenplay scripts. And if you’re like me, you’ve deftly constructed a world without enemies (mainly to avoid conflict). I realize this is a fortune that many in war-torn countries around the globe don’t have.

 

Here our antagonists tend to be more subtle and more subversive.

 

A few years back I attended a film festival where John Bucher, a gifted screenwriter and teacher, spoke about the antagonist in story. He shared this:

 

“If you can get your bad guy right, you can likely get the good one. One of the most powerful things you can do is make the good and bad guys related. You can’t get away from those you are related to. The closer in relationship the more powerful the story.” [Classic example: Star Wars.]

Here’s the dark reality: those we love dearly can be antagonists in our stories…and we can be antagonists in theirs.

 

And as I said, this antagonism is not often overt…and many times unconscious.

 

To reference another John…John Gottman, a renown psychological researcher and clinician. He talks about how one of the most damaging things to relationships is when one feels like the other holds his/her dream captive.

 

It’s those little ways we block one another’s dreams that turn into those little resentments that then block little expressions of intimacy…that then turn into big trouble.

 

And here’s the crazy thing: when it goes unnamed it gains power. Someone we love may be blocking our dream just a little because we’re blocking his/hers…because our dreams may be tied to competing values. Or our private logic may oppose one another without even knowing it.

 

But there’s hope.

 

When you think about the desire/dream you’re chasing in this season ask: Is there someone I love that seems to make it more difficult or I assume will not support it? Who is it?

 

Rather than going all Kill Bill as you think of that person…get curious. Consider what he or she may be wanting/needing? Could your desire be threatening his/her dream?

 

Let your curiosity entice you towards empathy. How might that person be experiencing your desire? What feelings and thoughts are being provoked in him/her as you chase it?

 

And now for an even tougher challenge, let curiosity and empathy call you to a courageous and loving conversation. Instead of accusing your antagonist, create a space for him or her to share. Be poised to receive it with empathy.

 

Brene Brown says it beautifully:

 “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”

I believe resentment can’t survive either.

 

So…Who or what is holding your dream hostage?

 

Your mission, if you choose to accept: Initiate a courageous and loving conversation with that person. Be curious and empathetic.

 

And for extra-credit consider this: Whose dream can you set-free?

 

Answering that one…well, that’s a call to true transformation…

Day 10 of 40 Days of Story: No conflict. No Story. So what’s yours right now?

Here’s a confession: I’m one of those “Could everyone just get along?” types.

 

It’s my natural bent and tends to be my first reaction. So much so, that one time when I was jumped by a [want-to-be] gang in a dodgy part of Paris I screamed “Please be nice…” and took off running. They were so confused they just stood there.

 

“The-please-be-nice-cut-and-run” strategy works on occasion, but not so much when it comes to worthy desires, real relationships and great stories.

 

The reality is:

There is no story without conflict. And there are no meaningful pursuits without a fight.

So, more and more I’m learning to embrace the value of conflict. I am beginning to exchange my people-pleasing ways for candid conversations. And while I still struggle with owning my needs and articulating my anger, I’m learning. As I said, it doesn’t come naturally. Growing up my brother had a monopoly on expressing anger. So I cornered the market on peace-making and perfectionism. Yes, you can guess how brilliantly I nailed that approach. I achieved a spastic colon in my teens and mastered the art of stuffing negative emotions.

 

While I’m grateful for many resources that have helped me reframe my relationship with conflict, including some excellent therapists, curiously enough story structure has been a powerful tool. Learning that the messy middle–Act II–is always the longest part of a story has been so helpful. Our hero encounters one obstacle after another while chasing after what she/he desires. And so often in story we see our hero get it wrong–make a wrong decision, take a wrong action–and then have more conflict. That is story…and that is so much of life.

 

I’ve been living in the messy middle far longer than I would like. It’s been a season of transition that has superseded any plans I had for my life–one that has forced me to ditch denial, release perfectionism and diminish people-pleasing. While I would have never signed up for it, I would also never exchange it. My relationships are richer, my courage is stronger and I’ve even learned to own some anger. Creating space to acknowledge conflict has made a difference. For instance, when a few months back I was approached by the Afghan mafia in Athens while interviewing refugees I didn’t respond with my conflict avoidant “Please be nice…” gut reaction. Rather I had a “How dare you!” gaze in my eyes, even as I high-tailed it on my way. I let myself feel it in my body: I care deeply about injustice…and because of that I will embrace anger and engage conflict!

 

For the next several days we will discuss the different levels of conflict our hero encounters in story…and the ones we face in our own lives. We will discuss more in depth how to choose conflict wisely and how it serves our story powerfully.

 

Yet for today, I invite you to name one conflict that comes to mind when you think about what your desire is at the moment. There’s a power in naming whatever that is. And the deeper exercise is to consider your own relationship with conflict. What is it like? Why is it so?

 

When you choose to show up to conflict…when you go beyond “Could everyone just get along.” you show up to courage…and you create the space for a great story.

 

 

May that be so for you…for me…for us all. Amen and amen.

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