The Power of Narratives
Why empathy is an essential aspect of good stories.
This article was written by Aarushi Kataria.
Narratives are written or spoken accounts of connected events; they seek to tell a story. A narrative is deployed to make a point and generate a response from the listener or passive observer of an event. Stories transfer us to the land they were written in; narratives take us to the story words are trying to tell.
Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, Daring Greatly, The School of Life, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Group: How One Therapist and a Group of Strangers Changed My Life, The Examined Life, The Collected Schizophrenias, The Body Keeps Score, Less, and Anxious People are just some of the books I have had the pleasure of reading that are testament to the fact that conversations around mental health are taking center stage; they are no longer taboo. Each author attempts to transport the reader into a different dimension while simultaneously exploring the complexities of a character.
Thus, narratives aren’t merely cold facts but experiential in nature. They aren’t merely illustrations but generate an urge to act. During the pandemic, a very unlikely storyteller emerged: the government.
The fear reaction the pandemic espoused was countered with an agentic response: a person seeking to control rather than allowing themselves to be controlled. This was important during the pandemic because it was a crisis situation, and the government wanted to dissipate the feeling of helplessness.
Every narrative has three components: logos, pathos, and ethos. In my research, it became evident that India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare used numbers in its press releases to highlight logic, the pathos was the hope and confidence they were hoping to invoke, and the Ministry’s credibility was its ethos. However, India’s narratives that revolve in a cyclical fashion of focusing on hope, confidence, elections, and deflection miss out on key components: empathy and compassion. While solidarity and sympathy were generated, empathy and compassion were not.
Yet, this wasn’t the case everywhere. For instance, New Zealand adopted an approach with empathy taking the center stage. Prime Minister Jacinda Adern didn’t believe that there was a metaphorical war, she wanted people to unite against the virus. She called the entire country a team. She used the narrative of “us”: one that relies on shared purposes, goals, and vision of a community. She evoked the experience of working cohesively as a community against the virus.
On the other hand, Indian officials relied more on the metaphors of war. Specifically, when the first national lockdown was announced, the imagery of an epic battle from the Hindu epic Mahabharata was used. This is important for two considerations: human collateral damage is considered a matter of fact when it comes to war (India saw the exodus of migrant labor without food or water), there is an authoritarian shift in actions (democratic institutions cease to function, this was most vividly seen in the case of Indira Gandhi during the 1975 Emergency), and wars have a rally around the flag which allows the cult of a leader to grow even more (the politics of “Vishwaas” deepened in India).
As the pandemic continues to rage on with a new variant, leadership and the messages they send are crucial. Narratives become an important way to control and guide citizens’ response. For instance, while President Trump regularly pointed fingers at governors and looked at the United States as individual states rather than a collective, Governor Cuomo focused on collective action. Despite his various misgivings and news that has come to light about Cuomo recently, he pushed New York through the beginning of the pandemic by asking for people’s help.
The press meetings held by the latter were testament to compassion being invoked. He believed in a “we” and didn’t try to propose blame to anyone. Rather, he proposed collective action to overcome the virus. During these press meetings, he emphasized concrete confidence underlined with empathy rather than empty hope. As noted by researchers, Cuomo “asked his listeners to imagine themselves as a community who have respect not only for one another’s vulnerabilities and potential suffering but for the integral role of scientific inquiry and professional judgment too.”
Why is compassion important? Unlike most disasters faced by a nation, the pandemic isn’t confined by space of time and carries a significant human cost. The virus is contagious. It spreads when we are in close contact with another person. The virus makes us revisit our interdependence with other people. Before the pandemic, we would have enjoyed dinner with twelve guests, but now even four feels like three too many. Almost everyone we know has faced a loss due to the pandemic.
As Jacinda Ardern reminded us–we must be strong and we must be kind. Compassion cannot be imposed, it has to be a shared practice. The virus has instilled fear in us. To move from this fear, the correct narratives need to be used. Those of hope and confidence underlined with empathy are essential. For it is through understanding the experiences of others that our horizons expand and policies, based on mass welfare rather than self-interest, are implemented.
Narratives that rely on empathy and compassion recognize the interdependent world we live in. They allow for accountability, transparency, and foster collective action. They allow us to progress ahead as one, not just one. Above all, empathy recognizes that it is okay to not be okay and allows us to follow up and follow through.