Throughout the world, people tend to reflect upon their lives as a journey, with goals and obstacles that get in the way of obtaining those goals. Most of us want to rise above challenges, emerging not only victorious, but also heroic. By viewing and talking about life in this way, we make sense of the chaos all around us. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell dubbed this ubiquitous narrative “the hero’s journey.”
Documentarian Hanson Hosein explains that the hero’s journey is a monomyth:
[It is] a universal pattern that transcends both culture and history … [It is] the story of when a seemingly ordinary person reluctantly accepts a call to action, leaves behind the status quo, and embarks on a journey that entails trials and tribulations from which this hero learns valuable lessons. Ultimately he undergoes a transformation for better or for worse and returns home a changed person. Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Frodo—these are all legendary personalities who have undertaken the hero’s journey.
Take this year’s Audi Super Bowl “Prom Night” advertisement. In just one minute, we recognize the protagonist, and can immediately understand and summarize the plot: Boy gets an opportunity, he seizes it, and both he and a community are forever changed because of his actions. The ending, in fact, was crowdsourced, winning the most votes of three different alternatives.
Philanthropy and advocacy are very familiar with the hero’s journey and use it to persuasive affect: “Person X was in dire straits, she received the services of Organization Y, and her life was transformed. Support Organization Y.” Or: “Person X was suffering, and Public Program Z helped him stop suffering. Authorize more funding for Public Program Z.”
Familiarity can be extremely comforting. In a hero’s journey, there are definitive winners, villains, benefactors, and plot twists. It certainly accelerates message comprehension: You too—if you act similarly—can be a hero.
But familiarity can also, ultimately, breed skepticism. And if audiences are becoming skeptical of such pat storylines, what, if anything, might replace the common hero’s journey?
I can think of several organizations that are bravely embracing and sharing the chaotic reality of life—organizations that are inviting conversation and engagement, as opposed to sharing stock messages and regurgitated storylines.
Exhale, which I have mentioned before (here and here), is committed to sharing stories that reflect the great and muddled mess that is reality, particularly around people’s experiences with abortion. New York Presbyterian Hospital, in particular, is pushing at the boundaries of familiarity in storytelling. In the most recent addition to its Amazing Things are Happening Here campaign, the hospital shares the story of a young boy, Danion Jones, who received care at the hospital and died before the age of seven. The ad is both uncomfortable and transcendent. It is shocking in its honesty and in its departure from the public storytelling that nonprofits usually generate.
“We are wary of listening to stories that we think are being told to manipulate our emotions or push us to believe a certain way,” says Francesca Polletta, author of It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics. “On the other hand, ambivalent stories, stories with no clear moral agenda, invite the listener to imagine themselves in the story.”
We’re seeing the rise of antiheroes on television. We’re starting to see the acceptance of complicated characters and nuanced situations in advertising. People will always find comfort in common plotlines. But we best relate to—we best see ourselves in—protagonists and stories that accurately reflect our complex lives. Social innovators, including philanthropic foundations and nonprofit organizations, will gain support and understanding if they, too, share authentic stories about their complex protagonists, messy work, and sometimes muddled results.