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Something Startling This Way Comes

Navigating crises with wonder may be the story of our time.

Image by Tom Coppen

No wonder in our economic crash-climate change-politically cynical age we’re fascinated with all-things creative. Crises birth innovation, whether in the kitchen or in the boardroom or in the marketplace. And wonder, this discreet emotion that continuously opens us up to new cognitive experiences, stands as among the most ubiquitous emotions we can experience in times of radical change and distress. 

A wondrous mindset can help people plunged into crisis navigate turbulence with more possibility than panic. We don't typically associate wonder with crisis, but as I proposed in "Wonder with a 1000 Faces," wonder has many more forms than the wide-eyed innocent variety. In that piece, I observed how numerous story designs begin with some variation of a hero in wonder.

In this piece, I want to consider what happens once a protagonist crosses the threshold into another world of utter confusion. Just as the executive or manager can cultivate wonder in times of fertile confusion, so the mythic, literary, and Hollywood hero musters her wits and wonder during story-changing hardship.  

The real pay-off in understanding how wonder works in crisis is not, though, for the sword-wielding hero on the screen. It's for the popcorn bag-toting one in the seat and suit.

For, navigating crises with wonder may be a story for our times.

Suddenly, something happens. A tornado rips the Kansas prairie and consumes Dorothy’s house. Alice falls down the rabbit hole. A business crashes. Planes plow the World Trade Centers. Louise shoots and kills a man trying to rape Thelma.

This stage in story design is itself another face of wonder. Wonder is experiencing something anew. At first, wonder opens us to the moment, feeling suspended in time and space for a few seconds. Or a few months. Or, yes, with some people with whom I’ve worked, a few years.

Joseph Campbell writes that "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder" to encounter "fabulous forces." In that disorientation, we can feel delight and confusion, joy and fear, exhilaration and anxiety simultaneously. Who am I? Where am I? Who might I become? Where might I go? How will I get through this? 

That complex of emotions is the face of vertigo wonder

And it’s a moment in story design that the novice writer or business artist overlooks. The maestro story designer knows that such moments are not only essential to story design. They’re essential to story experience - what happens to audiences during moments of vertigo wonder.

It’s a crucial part of story design and of story experience because many human beings by their late 20s enter Fertile Confusion - a stage in which their own identity is called into question. It’s not an identity crisis or a mid-life crisis. It is Fertile Confusion because if approached with wits, agency, and versatile problem-solving, this stage can be navigated and made fertile with possibility. 

In crises, we don't know if we have wits or stamina to endure. The winds of whim continue to throw us off course, Odysseuses all of us, taking the equivalent of 20 years to get where we want.

On the other hand, the wondrous hero, mixed with trepidation and possibility and trust, instead goes off on a quest. In 2001, Barbara Ferguson of The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill published her seminal Broaden-and-Build theory. The theory along with numerous follow-up studies repeatedly demonstrate that people who cultivate positive emotions do not simply survive crises but actually thrive, think creatively, and act more flexibly during hardships.

Not incidentally, in this Age of Disruption in which the once-reliable institutions are crumbling around the globe and in our cities, we story designers need to heed vertigo wonder. Vertigo wonder is what many of us experience or have experienced individually and collectively during the past few years. 

Jonathan Gottschall ably argues that, “Story is the glue of human social life - defining groups and holding them together. We live in Neverland because we can’t not live in Neverland. Neverland is our nature. We are the storytelling animal.”

We need stories to help us imagine how others navigate such periods. Business artists, by the way, would be wise to recognize vertigo wonder as a key way to understand the complex and contradictory emotions many of their employees and consumers are experiencing these days.

Vertigo wonder and Fertile Confusion might be our current emotional Zeitgeist.

If vertigo wonder launches a protagonist into adventure, externally or internally, another kind of quieter wonder sometimes rounds off the most critical part of a story. It is the nexus in which a protagonist sees someone or possibly herself radically anew. It is a point in story design that reveals potentially the most important of wonders - the wonder of self-reflection. 

Something more than Narcissus is at play when a human being marvels at her own image. It is a wonder, our visual network's capacity to decipher among the perceptual data this physical form reflected back as being one's own self. The Romans must have sensed the wonder in that self-reflection. The Latin word for wonder mira gives us mirror. 

Several stories' culminating episodes pivot around such moments of recognition. (And thanks to fiction writer and essayist Charlie Baxter for helping me wonder more about "recognition" as opposed to "epiphany" in story.)

Sometimes, the protagonist sees a part of himself anew. He recognizes how his own foolishness gets in the way of his own marriage or that his own over-identification with one parent might distort his own view of another character (BRIDGE OF SIGHS).

Some stories culminate when a hero recognizes anew not only one's self but also another character. Her point of view shifts, and with that shift, her whole world. Our hero, once enamored with her idealistic father's foolish dreams, finally is provoked to tell him he'll never realize his dreams and that he's wasting his time and the family's money - and she leaves home at last (THE GLASS CASTLE). 

These points are stuff of which meaning is made. 

These artfully sequenced moments of recognition trigger something poignant within the engaged audience member or reader. And it is here where the experience of film and fiction and even well-designed memoir differ from lived experience. In lived experience, because the jolt of perception or attitude is so immediately jarring, we mostly only feel it. It's not until months or years later, with some reflection, that we understand that jarring moment's meaning or significance.

Something else happens in art. As we watch a well-designed film or read a well-designed story unfold toward a moment of a character's recognition, we both feel it viscerally and understand its significance cognitively, almost simultaneously. The exquisite braid of thought and emotion, of intellect and heart, is one way art trumps lived experience or, for that matter, the folly-like albeit authentic attempts to "express" lived experience on the page. (Surely someone out there disagrees with me.)

And if a protagonist experiences the wonder of self-recognition, what are audiences often experiencing? Wonder leads to empathy.

Stage left, enter a story about a boy with cancer told by a neuroeconomist. A two-year-old boy named Ben has cancer, but after receiving chemotherapy treatments he feels the happiest he has in months. While he plays with toys and sings in the breeze, his father watches on with sadness. He knows something that Ben doesn’t - that Ben will die within six to twelve months. And yet, as the father tells this story, he realizes how precious time is for all of us. What’s remarkable in that moment is that the father identifies deeply with his son and emotionally becomes his dying son by sharing his mortality. 

That story is a centerpiece for a series of studies that are showing us what Story means for our times. Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University has been tracking empathy for years. Granted, scientists have been on the trail of narrative empathy for a couple of decades. Yet, in a series of studies, Zak and his team show that there may be a universal story structure that elicits both distress-based cortisol in the audience and empathy-based oxytocin. He calls oxytocin the Moral Molecule: the Source of Love and Prosperity. Oxytocin bonds us and connects us to strangers - be they real or virtual.

It is in these moments in story, then, I would suggest that an audience member - at least with a brain firing oxytocin - sees the protagonist in herself. Distress, empathy, wonder. Well-designed stories don’t manipulate us; they bond us

A business artist, concerned about how customers engage a brand, by the way, would be wise to consider what moments of recognition their business experiences create for customers as well as its own employees. How is a business challenging long-held assumptions? How is a business helping people recognize themselves in profoundly different ways? The same questions could be raised for educators and their students.

And so we hold the mirror up to our times.

The globe’s national economies seem as certain as the direction of a hurricane forecast. Unpredictable but volatile. Long-held notions of job loyalty have vanished. Available job descriptions look nothing like they did ten years ago. The music industry and especially the publishing industry scramble to redefine themselves as do musicians and authors. There is, then, a collective sense of crisis not just among the Millennials who have graduated into this broken world but for the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers as well who find themselves in the middle of it all, trying their best to create new ways of living, new ways of trading, new ways of building, new ways of collaborating. 

No wonder our screens and shelves are rife with 21st-century apocalypse tales of one kind or another. The storytellers, the Junot Diazes or Karen Thompson Walkers of the world, are called to craft the tales to captivate our imaginations and help us navigate The Age of Miracles

It is a brave new world. May we all be Mirandas not of wide-eyed innocence but of open-minded possibility, resourcefulness, and empathy.

Any contests here? Elaborations? 

See you in the woods,

Jeffrey Davis is an author, creativity consultant, and story strategist who helps creatives and teams navigate challenges and advance work that matters in the world.