Category Archives: life coaching

Toxic Tales – The Lemming Lie

lemming-763780_1920This is the third article in a series on Toxic Tales.  Now it’s gonna get messy.

Have you ever heard the phrase – “Don’t be a lemming” or “If you friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”  Up until a few months ago, I thought lemmings were mammals that willingly followed the group and would jump off a cliff just to follow the crowd.  I grew up “knowing” that fact.  A few months ago I was reading an article in Smithsonian Magazine about white owls and stumbled onto a section about lemmings, their major food source.  The journalist threw in a line about a nature documentary that staged the mass lemming death to create a dramatic ending. Huh? What?

I rolled up my sleeves and investigated the mystery of The Lemming Lie.

Here’s what I found. Back in 1957 Disney produced a nature documentary called White Wilderness about the arctic. The producer needed a dramatic ending so he herded a group of lemmings and drove them off a cliff.  Families gathered every Sunday to watch the Wonderful World of Disney, so when the documentary was aired millions saw a group of gerbil like rodents tumbling off a series of rocky cliffs, many falling to their deaths, others being swept away into the ocean.  White Wilderness won the 1958 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Animal Planets lists Lemmings Suicide as the #1 animal myth.

The Lemming Lie really bugged me and I wasn’t sure why.  After all I’m a storyteller, I tell and write lots of fiction.  As a story coach I help lots of folks find and tell their stories. Here’s one of my favorite lines, “know the difference between truth and facts.”  I tell folks to not get hung up on listing every event or even focusing on the right order of things.  But this is different.

Blatantly creating a false fact (and not disclosing its falseness) is toxic.  Today there is an abundant use of story in TED style talks, as a teaching tool, and as a motivational device.  Factual stories are now told everywhere. I heard a local politician tell an emotional story that swayed the audience, but I spotted the fabricated fact.  Some might argue, it’s only a story, and even if it is presented as a true story, we shouldn’t be gullible, but I disagree.

Since stories are sticky causing us to remember them longer than other forms of communication, the false facts embedded in these stories are also remembered.  There is a difference between fiction and non-fiction.  Listeners also recognize simplifications or generalizations in stories, however if the teller, writer, or film documentor is presenting something as fact, which he or she knows is a lie, the story will chisel doubt, skepticism, or false ideas into the audience.

Have you discovered a Lemming Lie…something you accepted as truth in a story, book, or movie, which is false?  I’d love to hear about it.

Here’s a link to the clip about lemmings from White Wilderness https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOOs8MaR1YM

Do you want to work with Rivka. Check out her Story Coaching page?  http://www.simplyextraordinarytales.com/story-coaching/

 

(note-I read a lot about the lemming myth and found one video that sited a cartoon published a couple years before the documentary was released. Since documentaries take time to create, I’m not sure which came first, but using a cartoon character as source material to justify staging a “true” event, seems like a stretch to me. This illustrates the problem.  Once a lie is embedded into our social consciousness, it’s hard to let it go.)


 

Toxic Tales: “The Worm in the Apple Stories.”

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Toxic Tales come in all shapes and sizes.  I’m going to focus in on a very common type in this post.  I originally thought of calling it the “Oh You’re Gonna Suffer Stories” but decided to be a little poetic and call them “The Worm in the Apple Stories,” because these nasty little tales burrow into listener’s consciousness and often end up spoiling experiences.

These stories are often personal, although not necessarily the teller’s personal experience. They can also be historical or a bit of a tall tale. The story is aimed at a person or persons preparing to go somewhere or do something, and is presented as a warning or a tale of woe.

Pregnant moms and couples often encounter Worm in the Apple Stories, especially at parties or gatherings. The teller will approach the pregnant woman or couple and launch into an account of something difficult, painful, or terrifying that happened to them or someone else.  A bit of drama and emotion is usually part of the mix.  It might go something like “My sister tried natural birth and she screamed for 48 hours… or my friend wanted an epidural but nothing worked then she fell off the bed, ripped out her IV lines…   You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’ve heard both of those stories told in detail with lots more drama and promised pain.

Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about discussing aspects of birth or sharing birth experiences in a caring and authentic way.  These stories are told to get attention, raise emotions or for the enjoyment of the teller. I taught childbirth classes for a couple years and was a doula for decades.  Many parents told me about these stories and how it caused them distress.  Sometimes the distress manifested as nightmares or self-doubt, other times they became nagging memories that accompanied them to labor or early parenting. And just like a worm in an apple, they damage some of the fruit (experience).

Another example of this type of toxic tale is given when a person or people are going into something new.  It might be a planned vacation, starting school, or a new job or adventure.  The enthusiastic listeners will hear stories about tragedy, hardship, or sorrow that happened to someone else.  I once was told about a shark attack when I was headed for a vacation. The attack happened a decade before and not exactly where I swam, but I found myself checking the water and tensing up at the thought each time I went into the water.

These stories are usually not told to purposely ruin your experience; I believe they are usually told to draw attention.  The toxins released by these tales may be minor, although for some, they linger.  If you hear someone starting a wormy tale, you can stop them or walk away.  If you have heard one of these tales and you’re having trouble shaking off the negative images, seek out positive stories and/or information to put things in a proper prospective.

Toxic Tales-Bigotry and Prejudice

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A couple people have told me that all stories are neutral, they can be good or bad, it just depends on how you tell it.  Although that does apply to many examples and it might make people feel good, it’s not true.  There are some stories that are hurtful and harmful no matter how they are told. Some stories are weaponized and others infused (sometimes unconsciously) with hurtful elements that define the story. Good examples of inherently harmful stories are Tales filled with Bigotry or Prejudice.

Let’s look at two types of prejudicial stories:

  1. Stories created especially to promote and increase hatred of a specific group of people.
  2. Stories with characters that encourage and promote negative images or beliefs around a specific group of people.

Stories that Promote Hate

Example – Blood Libel

This ‘traditional tale’ has been told and retold for centuries. Specific names and places change with time but the plot is consistent.  This anti-sematic story usually begins with the death or disappearance of a non-Jewish child.  Then the discovery of some evidence is found that ties the death to the Jewish community because they needed the victim’s blood to make matzah or wine for a holiday or ritual. This is one of history’s cruel ironies because Jewish law prohibits murder, sacrifice, and consumption of blood.  (note- that’s why kosher meat is salted after it is butchered-to draw out the blood.)

One of the earliest examples of the story can be traced back to 1144 in England.  The story then spread through Europe and beyond.  The myth has been used to justify violence against Jews, leading to the deaths of hundreds of men and women. Unfortunately this story hasn’t  gone away and has been mentioned as recently as 2014 when terrorists sited blood libel as the reason for a shooting in synagogue in Israel.

 

Stories that infuse Negative Stereotypes into a specific group or race:

Example – Little Black Sambo

Little Black Sambo was written by Helen Bannerman in 1899.  The illustrations, some story elements, and names of the three main characters – Little Black Sambo, Black Mumbo, and Black Jumbo – are especially offensive. Although the story isn’t inherently racist, the hurtful images linger and have taken on significance as racist symbols. A new version of the story was released in 1996 with new names and pictures, but many objected saying the story carried too much hateful history.  I suppose you could argue that this story can be retold, but only by changing the elements that connect it to the original story.  By doing that, you’re creating a different story.

Some stories carry histories of hurt that are not easily forgotten.  I’d like to take it one step further.  Maybe they shouldn’t be forgotten.  Are we ignoring or glossing over this history of hatred by changing names, titles, and plot elements of stories that carried prejudicial messages?

 

(note: I considered adding pictures of the cover of Little Black Sambo but decided against it.  I thought it might be hurtful or triggering to some of my blog readers.  If you’d like to see the varied art, search google images using the book’s title.)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Weekly Blog

lost-1605501_1920I started a new series for this blog just a little over a year ago.  I had finished the series on “Junk Stories” and was ready to begin a new series on Toxic Tales: Stories That Cause Harm.  I wrote an outline, began research, and started the first article.

…And then…I stopped.

I stopped working on the series and the blog.  I continued creating spoken word stories and other written content, but the blog drifted into silence.  At first I thought about the content but procrastinated.  Eventually I pushed it out of my mind.

Today is the December 17th, 2018, two weeks before the year is over.  I opened my blog this morning and looked at the picture.  Whatever blocked me from writing a year ago is still here.  I looked at the picture and went about my work until midday when I finally read the last article.  I agree with everything I wrote, so why am I still pushing against writing this series?

Here’s what I’ve come up.

Art is fun.  All art forms are fun to create, experience, and enjoy, and it’s easy to just leave it there.  Stories fill up a lot of our time.  We listen, tell, write, watch, and read stories.  There’s a part of me that just wants to enjoy the story and not think too hard. If I admit (especially on a public blog) that stories can be harmful, I need to take responsibility when I encounter toxic tales. Part of me just wants to have fun, but another (wiser) part of me knows better.

So I’m stepping forward.  Over the next few weeks I’ll explore how stories can be harmful or dangerous. I hope you’ll join me in this (sometimes scary) exploration.

When junk stories become personal (5 in a Series of 8)

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By Rivka Willick

The stories we tell, read, hear, see, and experience become part of our personal life-map which provide a context for each of us to organize and help understand the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual challenges that we face every day. When we fill our life map with a wide range of quality stories, we will be able to explore and embrace individual trials and opportunities. If we’ve filled up on junk, our ability to access memories, emotions, and information will be compromised.

Sometimes we become dependent and begin to identify with the junk stories we’ve consumed. When the world begins to be an extension of addictive or compulsive content, the self will begin to lose bits of its genuineness.

I remember a woman who lived across the street when I was a teenager.  She needed her Soaps every day. She once told me that if she missed even part of one of her afternoon shows, her entire day was ruined.  She also used the characters in the show to fill up her day, they often showed up in conversations.

Discussions of popular stories are commonplace, but if these discussions are only recitations of plot points or characters or if you catch yourself living vicariously through these stories, the junk might be taking over.  Check to see if you are the only one really talking.  Try to expand these conversations into topics that matter. Remember, junk dumbs you down and dulls emotional responses, so push through it.

Junk stories also tend to draw individuals away from others and build a narcissistic attitude.  Are you isolating, monopolizing conversations, or telling personal stories that are self-focused often with a harsh and sometimes offensive edge?  Are you elevating yourself at the cost of others?  If so, please consider reducing your junk story intake.  Push yourself to explore new types of stories and seek out opportunities to interact and empathize with others.

Next Blog:           Weening Off a Junk Story Diet

How Many Junk Stories are Too Many Junk Stories? (4th in a series of 8)

 

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How many “calories” are in a procedural or trash novel?

By Rivka Willick

For most of us, an occasional ice cream cone or order of fries is OK, but a diet filled with junk food will sooner or later cause health problems.  The same applies with junk stories. For most of us watching a procedural, reading a serial romance novel, or sharing a self-absorbed story is harmless, but bingeing on stories with addictive, simplistic, or narcissistic elements will dumb you down, emotionally stunt you, and dull your spirit.

So, how do we find the right balance for a nutritious story diet? It will vary for different individuals and may be a little tough to get a grip on, since stories are so entwined in our lives.

Let’s go back to the food analogy to find our answer. Some people have a very low tolerance for sugars, fatty foods, and starches.  If you have heart disease, diabetes, or binge eating disorders, you need to limit and illuminate certain foods.  I believe there are similar conditions connected to our story intake.

  1. Media Binging- If you are obsessively watching, reading, or listening to stories for hours at a time, losing sleep, skipping work, or avoiding responsibilities consider limiting or cutting out the types of stories that you’re hooked on.
  2. Irritability and social isolation – Certain stories are structured to build dependency; these often are simplistic and repetitive. If you find yourself separating from others, consider expanding your story diet.
  3. Fatigue and a Dumbed Down Feeling (Couch Potato) – If you’re spending a lot of time reading, watching shows, or listening to stories that lulls you into a complacent or dull state of mind, consider reducing or changing your story habits.

You may not fall into any of the above categories, however a conscientious examination of the different types of stories you take in every month will help you stay balanced.  After all, you want a diverse diet of both food and stories.  If you eat nothing but greens, eventually you’ll have problems.  The same is true with your intellectual, emotional, and spiritual consumption of the world around you.  (We are focusing on stories, because stories are sticky and show up in everything). Try to take in some challenging stories, along with some inspiring tales, narratives that connect, and some playful yarns.

Also try to take in a variety of story forms.  If you mainly watch TV, add reading or listening to stories on the radio, as blogs, or audio books.  If you have a seat with your name on it at the local cinema, try to take in a play.  And don’t forget live, unscripted stories.

 

 

Next blog: When Junk Stories Become Personal

How do you handle the Junk Stories around you?  Leave a comment.

The Risks of Living on a Junk Story Diet

By Rivka Willick

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We process and store the stories we hear and read just as surely as we ingest and process the food we eat. Stories, just like food, offer a wide range of benefits and risks. The best tales will challenge the mind, generate courage and hope to the heart, and inspire the spirit. Toxic stories, and yes there are many that act like poison, can generate fear, mistrust, hatred, hopelessness, cruelty, and confusion. During this month’s exploration, we will look at the stories that are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.  I call them Junk Stories.  Enjoying Junk Stories in moderation is OK, but if you fill up on Junk your mind, heart, and spirit will suffer.

Let’s take a closer look at the negative effects of consuming too many junk stories.

Dumbing Down – Stories can fill us up mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  When the content is challenging, curious, or inspiring we grow and flourish. However, if the content is pleasant or titillating but lacks substance, we can spend our mental and emotional energy with little in return. That’s OK in moderation, just as a handful of potato chips are also OK.  Problems arise when we take more than just a handful. Remember the old Lays Potato Chip slogan, “bet you can’t eat just one!” Focusing on just one type of story or binging for hours or days on a series are serious signs of a JUNK STORY DIET. Remember, there are structures used purposefully to ‘hook you’ and keep you coming back. The story in and of itself is OK, dependency isn’t.

Lack of Empathy & Narcissism – Stories are bridges and often become connectors between people, cultures, and different ways of life, but they can also act like a funhouse mirror reflecting how we see ourselves, often in a distorted way.  We’ve all met the guy at a party who monopolizes the conversation with self-aggrandizing tales; people will walk away or try to change the topic but he just doesn’t stop. Personal stories are now one of the hottest trends, but when these tales are solely focused on just the teller, often jumping from one gory or shocking event to another, narcissism has fertile soil to grow.  A diet of shocking stories can also reduce your ability to empathize.

Isolation – Some stories expand the world and others insulate the reader creating a bubble for the reader or listener to escape into. Vacations are good, imprisonment is bad.  If you feel entrapped by media, addictive novels, or your own stories, you need to turn those off and find stories that connect you to others.

Dependency – An exciting movie, novel, or performance can produce an adrenal rush. That heightened emotional state is thrilling and fun, but it can also become addictive. I remember a commercial featuring a zombie-like woman who begins to panic at the end of the last episode of a TV series. The spokesperson assured her she’d be OK if she subscribed to their service, they had lots of binge-worthy shows. The ad ends with her smiling as she sits back to zone out once again. Your natural curiosity and emotional growth can get stuck and that can lead to frustration and depression.

Spiritual Disconnection – Every religion and spiritual practice uses stories as a conduit to understand complicated and challenging ideas. Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist who did ground breaking work understanding the stories in folklore and comparative religion showed just how powerful the narrative format can be.  The opposite is also true.  Just as stories can connect us to higher truths and lead us to deeper meanings in life, other stories can desensitize us.  Junk stories can stifle our desire to stretch and push ourselves.  The easy story often fills us up making us reluctant to tackle challenging stuff.

Miscommunication & Lies – This category is closer to Toxic than Junk, but I decided to include it because dishonest stories often mascaraed as important or essential stuff even though it’s just junk.  Propaganda campaigns seek out stories which evokes emotional responses and appear to be true.  Once you ingest one of these “true” but dishonest tales it can get stuck in your mind as truth.  This form of junk is often delivered at political and sales events.  They also flourish all over the internet.

Do you have other ideas about the risks of junk stories? Leave a comment below.  If you’d like to explore the power of story, drop me a note.  I do one-on-one coaching, workshops, and performances.

Next Blog: How to Identify Junk Stories.