Stories Are About Change

(Today’s post is pulled from the archives, from August 9, 2013, just about this time five years ago.)

In his wonderful book The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz tells the story of Marissa Panigrosso, who worked on the 98th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. She recalled that when the first plane hit the North Tower on September 11, 2001, a wave of hot air came through her glass windows as intense as opening a pizza oven.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Seminal Change Curve is Story-Driven

She did not hesitate. She didn’t even pick up her purse, make a phone call or turn off her computer. She walked quickly to the nearest emergency exit, pushed through the door and began the ninety-eight-stairway decent to the ground. What she found curious is that far more people chose to stay right where they were. They made outside calls and even an entire group of colleagues went into their previously scheduled meeting.

Why would they choose to stay in such a vulnerable place in such an extreme circumstance?

Because they were human beings and human beings find change to be extremely difficult, practically impossible. To leave without being instructed to leave was a risk. What were the chances of another plane hitting their tower, really? And if they did leave, wouldn’t their colleagues think that they were over-reacting, running in fear? They should stay calm and wait for help, maintain an even keel. And that’s what they did. I probably would have too.

Grosz suggests that the reason every single person in the South Tower didn’t immediately leave the building is that they did not have a familiar story in their minds to guide them.

We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even—or perhaps especially—in an emergency. This is so, I hasten to add, whether we are patients or psychoanalysts.

Even among those people who chose to leave, there were some who went back to the floor to retrieve personal belongings they couldn’t bear to part with. One woman was walking down alongside Marissa Panigrosso when she stopped herself and went back upstairs to get the baby pictures of her children left on her desk. To lose them was too much for her to accept. The decision was fatal.

When human beings are faced with chaotic circumstances, our impulse is to stay safe by doing what we’ve always done before. To change our course of action seems far riskier than to keep on keeping on. To change anything about our lives, even our choice of toothpaste, causes great anxiety.

How we are convinced finally to change is by hearing stories of other people who risked and triumphed. Not some easy triumph, either. But a hard fought one that takes every ounce of the protagonist’s inner fortitude. Because that’s what it takes in real life to leave a dysfunctional relationship, move to a new city, or quit your job. It just does.

I think it is because change requires loss. And the prospect of loss is far more powerful than potential gain. It’s difficult to imagine what a change will do to us. This is why we need stories so desperately.

Stories give us scripts to follow. It’s no different than young boys hearing the story of how an orphan in Baltimore dedicated himself to the love of a game and ended up the greatest baseball player of all time. If George Herman Ruth could find his life’s work and succeed from such humble origins, then maybe they could became big league ball players too.

We need stories to temper our anxieties, either as supporting messages to stay as we are or inspiring road maps to get us to take a chance. Experiencing stories that tell the tale of protagonists for whom we can empathize gives us the courage to examine our own lives and change them.

So if your story doesn’t change your lead character irrevocably from beginning to end, no one will really care about it. It may entertain them, but it will have little effect on them. It will be forgotten. We want characters in stories that take on the myriad challenges of changing their lives and somehow make it through, with invaluable experience. Stories give us the courage to act when we face confusing circumstances that require decisiveness. These circumstances are called CONFLICTS. What we do or don’t do when we face conflict is the engine of storytelling.

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  1. Basilis on August 9, 2013 at 3:18 am

    Cool! 😎

  2. Teddy Herzog on August 9, 2013 at 6:25 am

    I look forward to what you and Steven post here every week. A little bit about writing stories. A whole lot about living life. Thank you!

  3. David Y.B. Kaufmann on August 9, 2013 at 7:29 am

    If George Lakoff is right, we live in metaphors, which are shortened analogies, which are shortened stories.
    Without narrative (stories), there is neither morality nor meaning.
    That may be why telling and technique are so important, and stories always personal.

  4. Rich Proctor on August 9, 2013 at 11:33 am

    Powerful post Shawn. Important information here for living, as well as storytelling.

  5. Jerry Ellis on August 9, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Great piece today, Shawn. Thank you. I think the very elements you address today are what make my Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, Walking the Trail, One Man’s Journey Along the Cherokee Trail of Tears, so successful. I am posting the link here to my site on Facebook called Native Defender, where I post daily Native American history and vintage Indian photos. My site daily gets thousands of hits so I hope many will read your piece today.

  6. Consuelo on August 9, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    So many levels…writing; personal application to life, and to work…

    I was in a subway a few weeks ago a sting smell of something burning came through…the doors of the train stayed open as an announcement was made…I got off and couldn’t get out of that subway quickly enough…people stood around waiting to see what would happen…had a chance to see a part of the cityI haven’t seen since moving back…I wasn’t in a hurry to get where I was headed, bit I didn’t want to be in a subway with that strong fire smell, waiting to see how it ended.

  7. Sandy on August 9, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    Fascinating article, especially the unspoken question “What would you do”. I would have left immediately, as well, but I would have taken my purse. And I would yelled to those around me, as I was leaving “Let’s all leave by the stairs, its not safe here”.

    But that’s me, I like taking long lunch breaks, too.

  8. Beth Barany on August 9, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    Love this!

  9. Ulla Lauridsen on August 10, 2013 at 2:35 am

    Very true. I read Gonzales’ Deep Survival, which is about survival and how we react to unexpected circumstances. He calls the stories we have in our heads ‘memories of the future’. These memories of the future – what we imagined the day or the trip would be like – are a huge danger. Because when reality deviates from our script, it’s hard for us to recognize it and act appropriately.
    An interesting way to create rising conflict, I think. I think it’s what Conrad did in ‘An outpost of progress’

  10. esthercoroneldeiberkleid on August 10, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Great article SHAWN COYNE! Thank you very much. Even though it is difficult for anyone to say what he would have done in an emergency situation like 9/11 since the emotions have to be felt to fire the engine and take any action, it is very interesting to still reflect and think about these type of situations for sure. What I believe is the most important thing for us human beings is to understand the value of life more than the value of things. Wealth is related with that fact, because wealth is related to freedom, love, compassion and understanding of the purpose of our own life

  11. Monique Lusse on August 11, 2013 at 11:58 am

    Thanks for your thought “change requires loss.” I had never considered that and it offers an explanation of why change is so hard, even change that we “know” is good for us, i.e., “We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one.”

    This insight has been very helpful…thanks again.

  12. Matt on August 12, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    Just finished another Myron Bolitar and recognized your name in the acknowledgements. You are on quite a tear!

  13. Jason B. Lassner on August 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    Hi Shawn,
    I couldn’t agree more that stories provide the impetus for believing that change is even possible, let alone worth the risk. Like commenter Ulla Lauridsen, I read Gonzales’ Deep Survival several years ago and found it inspiring. In fact, my business partner Anne Green and I just published such a story (actually a fable) in order to provide such inspiration to others who seek the courage to change but either don’t have it yet or don’t know how to act on it. The title of our fable is The Roadmap: A Fable About Permanent Behavior Change. We sincerely hope to teach others to cultivate what we call “Steadiness” in their lives and discover the tools to change and find deeper fulfillment! Cheers to you and your readers!

  14. Phil on August 28, 2013 at 6:58 am

    This is the first post of yours that I’ve read. I’m hooked.

  15. Mimi DiFrancesca on September 15, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    No one tells that story you mentioned better than Richard Bach’s, Illusions: The Story of a Reluctant Messiah. I read it once a year to to kick myself in my own rear end. It should be required reading for everyone. Great article by the way!

  16. Lasonya on October 8, 2013 at 11:14 pm

    Useful information. Fortunate me I discovered your website by accident, and I’m shocked why this accident did not happened earlier!

    I bookmarked it.

    Here is my web site: video (Lasonya)

  17. Mary Doyle on August 17, 2018 at 5:26 am

    Wow! This one hits right between the eyes – thanks for rerunning it. So nice to see David Y.B. Kaufmann’s comment – I really miss his insights on this blog. Thanks Callie!

  18. Rick Matz on August 17, 2018 at 5:59 am

    Decades ago, when I was a young software engineer, I had a job where I sat next to a PhD from Taiwan. He took an interest in me because I was practicing taijiquan and had an interest in Asian things.

    Every day he would write out a character for me and explain it to me. The one that really stuck with me was “change.”

    If you’re stuck, change. If something isn’t working, change. If your mind isn’t right about something, change it.

  19. Mia Sherwood Landau on August 17, 2018 at 6:23 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this again. Five years ago I wasn’t ready. I am a human and reluctant to change. With all those years of absorbing Black Irish wisdom, I changed. I must plunge my characters into danger as quickly as possible, while removing myself from it the same way. Immediately. It’s shocking how long it takes for humans to learn, speaking for myself.

    • Mary Doyle on August 17, 2018 at 9:03 am

      You’re in good company Mia!

  20. Super Cally go ballistic. on August 17, 2018 at 6:26 am

    Agree with your points, although Raymond Carver and Lucia Berlin both write about characters who don’t change in the course of story, yet remain as griping prose.

  21. Gwen Abitz on August 17, 2018 at 7:30 am

    When this was posted 5 years ago, I wasn’t aware of the Steve Pressfield Team. I became aware when Steve was on Super Soul Sunday in September of 2013. Well anyway, as so often, I would be reminded of “something” when reading the Blogs. This time was the 3 minute video about how change is good. (I heard though [from many] the millennial generation do not link to a video that is longer then 2 minutes. Do not know if such is true)

  22. Julie Murphy on August 17, 2018 at 9:11 pm

    Can never hear this enough, Shawn. Thanks.

  23. Tine Wiggens on August 18, 2018 at 7:45 am

    Thank you, Shawn. Your paragraphs about Marissa read like a story. Beautiful writing.

  24. Sandra on August 18, 2018 at 9:01 am

    As I develop the characters in my book, I keep your words in mind: “So if your story doesn’t change your lead character irrevocably from beginning to end, no one will really care about it.” Thank you for keeping me on task.

  25. Amber Gilbert on January 7, 2022 at 4:14 am

    Why don’t you try to see if it’s the same for you too? I dream that I was not just drug-induced. wiki page creation

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