Decentering Ourselves through Storytelling

We tend to be self-centered. And this makes perfect sense on a practical level given we experience the world through our bodies and eyes. We are literally the center of our own universes. However, failing to escape an exclusively self-centered perspective is harmful to others and ourselves. One of my favorite things about novels and storytelling is how they help free us from this mindset.

Ironically, storytelling and performance are areas where people most cling to their self-centered worldview. I’m sure everyone has seen someone claim that a reboot or a sequel completely destroyed what came before because the reboot made decisions they didn’t like. Star Wars fans do this well, throwing racism and sexism into the mix at their worst (a breakdown if you dare). Some people expressed this type of self-centered disappointment with the Superbowl halftime show because they’d never heard of The Weeknd despite his fame. (Yes, this post may have been triggered by my Mom showing me Facebook posts expressing this opinion, which I then found all over Twitter.)

These takes cannot accept and/or do not consider that everything isn’t about them. Obviously, it’s perfectly fine to not like something and to articulate why. However, saying Star Wars was ruined or that you should be a fan of every Superbowl performer, does not allow space for others’ experiences or their likes and dislikes. These takes are more than simple criticism. They actively work to deny people stories that they could enjoy and relate to.

I’ve written elsewhere how storytelling, particularly writing, can help counteract our self-centered tendencies. A reader must actively engage with a text to fill out the world, to transform black lines into a bustling city or a deep forest grove. A watcher must interpret the expression on an actor’s face to give them an interior world. In so doing, we step outside of ourselves to join the characters in an imagined world. Free from our little universes, we can choose to take the opportunity to develop empathy (it’s scientific: reading books develops empathy). Some of my favorite stories go a step further and actively supplant self-centeredness.

They challenge what it means to be a savant and subvert the trope of the Chosen One. In Blade Runner 2049, the protagonist believes himself to be the Chosen One, destined to save humanity. He is not and, in fact, is not special at all. It is in coming to terms with this reality — that the world does not revolve him — that the protagonist is able to make a difference. In The Masquerade series by Seth Dickinson, the protagonist is a savant with the ability to destroy the empire that colonized her homeland from within. One of her biggest weaknesses? An inability to see other people as anything other than pieces on a gameboard, denying them their own desires, needs, and scheming. Her path to success lies in acknowledging that the world is not centered around her, that people have their own motivations and agendas. Some, through this realization, are transformed from obstacles to allies.

Last but not least, The Last Jedi, the movie that ‘ruined’ Star Wars, reimagines what it means to be chosen in a galaxy far, far away. The protagonist, Rey, realizes to her disappointment that she is not related to the Skywalkers or anybody famous, but rather to people that were ordinary. The movie dares to imagine that in a galaxy filled with billions of sentient beings that perhaps it won’t be the same family making the difference each and every time. Everyone can matter even if they don’t have a path easily mapped out for them. It was one of the more attacked parts of the movie, one of the aspects that was supposedly anti-Star Wars. Perhaps because in acknowledging this Star Wars fans would have to admit that there is more than one type of Star Wars’ story. That the franchise does not have to cater to them.

All of these narratives have one thing in common, the protagonists only succeed through realizing and coming to terms with the fact that they are not the center of the universe, that things will not align based simply on their desires. They realize, to varying degrees, that this view is not only harmful to themselves, but to those around them as well. Even in our own, much less dramatic lives, we can hardly afford the exhaustion that comes with always centering the ‘self.’ A movie that you don’t like becomes a personal attack. A performer that you don’t like can’t just be shrugged off. Instead, you feel compelled to insult them. Or, if you’re me, a conversation that went poorly becomes endlessly analyzed to find out what you did wrong. An inability to befriend somebody becomes entirely your fault, forgetting that there is another person in the equation. Your lack of control over the world becomes a personal failure and everything that doesn’t cater to you an attack. It’s no way to live.

In engaging with decentering narratives, we not only get to step outside ourselves, but we get to experience what it means to grapple with the reality that we are not the center of the universe. Maybe through experiencing this in film and stories, we can better learn how to do it in the world for ourselves. I know I am trying. I encourage you to try with me.

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