THE EMPATHY EPIPHANY OF STORY
The power of story & how it is transforming my son’s autism
by Mark Steele — Executive Creative of Steelehouse
Two years ago today, my son Davy sat in a darkened movie theater and watched an entire film for the first time. He was four years old. That may not sound like much of an achievement until you understand that Davy has Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD-NOS to be exact), a form of autism that is characterized by a chaotic onslaught to his senses. Among many other things, this means that processing stimuli (bright lights, loud noises, crowds) is agitating and exhausting for him. Scenarios that seem normal to you and I are cacophonous and confusing to him. If you and I have a Dewey Decimal System of catalogued learning, memories, and experiences inside our brain, then David’s brain looks like his library has been hit by a hurricane.
A bright screen. THX sound. Other audience members seated close by and yelling at the screen as if they have impact on the outcome. Why would I subject Davy to such a petrie dish of agitation? Because I had a hunch. A hunch regarding the power of Story. I was willing to take the risk of aggravation for the potential payoff of empathy. Isn’t that the whole point of crafting a narrative? That amidst the myriad of ways a story told with power excites, saddens, thrills and stresses the viewer, the end sum of those parts is a personal epiphany.
In key moments of each of our lives, we walk out of a narrative experience more than entertained. We exit with some unexplainable transformation having occured in our brain and emotions — a shift so vital that it impacts our behaviors and decisions. We have each had at least one moment of Narrative Epiphany in our lives. It begins when one empathizes with a character or plot strand in a new, left-turn manner — when the narrative explains a pattern of thought in that subtle unique way that finally cracks open the eggshell of one’s brain, causing the viewer to feel as if they are realizing something no one has ever learned before about life. And they ARE. Because the story is being sifted through the collander of that unique viewer’s experience and imagination — making it a wholely original realization.
It’s why I am (and more than likely why you are) in the creative business. Because story isn’t merely the language I prefer. I believe it is the single most powerful tool in the universe to provoke change — because more than teaching or debate or even personal experience, story provokes empathy by entrenching the viewer safely but deeply inside the headspace (and emotionspace) of another individual. And empathy is the path through the forest of selfishness to epiphany. The creative vision of the storyteller meshes with the one-of-a-kind existence of the viewer and becomes something unique and transformative — a moment the viewer loses who they are for just long enough to understand someone else.
My hunch was a good one. Davy did more than “make it through” the film viewing. The immersive narrative experience blew his imagination wide open. As you can imagine, he asked a hundred questions — but for the first time, they were questions about the impact the story’s crises had on the well-being of the characters instead of questions about the impact the day’s crises had on the well-being of Davy. Yes, there was the pain of stimuli agitation — but the affection for the characters that the narrative grew in Davy outweighed the price of the pain. It was the seed of empathy — but it was also the forging of new synapses in his precious mind.
Two years (and about 75 more movies) have passed and my wife and I have seen Davy continue to make momentous leaps in his brain development by means of Story. Gross motor skills advance significantly as he plays Jedi on the trampoline. Synapses connect as he creates mash-up stories of all his favorite Disney / Marvel / Peanuts figures smushed into one massive narrative. The trajectory of fictional lives that he is able to engage with opens all of his senses to the realities of nonfictional lives all around him. Most importantly, he connects his own thoughts, feelings, and journey with those of others — and empathy grows. In short, we are seeing advances in Davy’s autism journey that we shouldn’t be seeing because the Power of Story drives Davy to think further beyond his own experience.
So, here’s where it comes down to it. Where is the empathy in the narrative you are crafting today? Because whether it is the Great American Novel, a work of advertising, a feature film, a blurb of self-promotion, or a round of copy you’ve reworked 100 times, the seed of empathy matters. That kernel of real emotion, of tapping the human experience, regardless of how small — is what will provoke your audience to perk up and take notice. It comes from the extra dash of vulnerability — of gutting into what makes you flawed and unique and human and then bleeding even just a drop of that onto the page. It is why some of your work matters — and some of it is merely approveable. You know the difference. As you craft your narrative today, risk the seed of empathy. It will make all the difference in the impact of your work — and perhaps the impact of your life.