Jonathan Gruber -

Nov 20, 2020

Seeing Each Other Through Stories

"Are we not of interest to each other?"

—Elizabeth Alexander, poet, educator, foundation leader

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself in Anchorage, Alaska, witnessing snowfall for the first time. There, a local refugee resettlement agency welcomes a multigenerational family from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The agency team patiently helps the family stock the fridge, find jobs, and learn the local bus system. The community gathers to greet the newcomers over a shared meal. The joyful act of breaking bread together – with authentic Congolese food – takes on a sacredness as the family members introduce themselves, express their gratitude, and recount the harrowing life they left behind. They sing a traditional song for the local residents. “Let us rejoice,” it begins. “Let’s be happy for this joyful day.” Later, one of the agency leads reflects on what motivates her. “The globe is most unkind,” she says, “when we determine that someone's life holds more value than another person's. That's the start of unkindness.” This is one of the real-life stories woven through The Antidote, a documentary that shows everyday people across the U.S. who, with conviction and compassion, choose to lift others up at a time when we see a lot of people tearing others down.

It’s the power of kindness that propels the nine stories featured in The Antidote. The film, released on Amazon Prime last week, is an artful work of nonfiction that brings us into the lives of people who embody the best of who we are and who we can be. As the grandson of Holocaust survivors who fled Vienna, found refuge in Shanghai, and made their way to Louisville, Kentucky to build a new life when my dad was a year old, I embrace the story of Anchorage – and all the stories in The Antidote – as a clarion call to show up with decency toward our fellow human beings, no matter their backgrounds or beliefs. Not just in moments of extremis, but in the day-to-day. Such behavior is more prevalent than the outrage industrial complex would have us believe, but let’s be honest, this is a precarious moment in America.

The need for stories

While the 2020 election offered a stark reminder of how deeply divided the country is, it also made clear that, whichever way we voted, we don’t really comprehend those on the “other side”. The news media contributes to a large perception gap on the left and the right, and social media adds fuel to the fire. It doesn’t help matters that amidst the pandemic, there’s been a rise in isolation and loneliness; we’re having fewer encounters outside our homes, let alone across our fraught divides.

There’s welcome talk now about the need to heal, but doing so is difficult until we understand and respect each other in ways that transcend caricatures and stereotypes. It’s crucial to see each other as multi-dimensional, complicated people with particular life experiences and beliefs, with deeply felt aspirations and challenges. But how do we do that? How do we get curious about difference in ways that reveal our individuality and our shared humanity?

One way to unsettle our assumptions is to educate ourselves. We can read up on the histories and present-day forces that affect people’s lives. We can seek out sources beyond our echo chambers. We can reckon with facts and statistics that color in our incomplete views about the larger systems that impinge, differentially, on people’s life plans and prospects. But we can’t come to know each other on an intellectual level alone. We must feel it on an emotional level too. What we need is the humanizing power of stories. 

Films that will open your eyes and your heart

Just as The Antidote shines a light on our capacity for kindness and decency, The Reunited States investigates what’s possible in bridging our political divides. The film braids together four stories of people who are dedicated to depolarization and recognize the agency they have to be part of the solution. We get to know David Leaverton, who worked in Republican politics before realizing that he was contributing to a toxic political culture. He and his wife Erin set off on a year-long RV journey across all fifty states with their three kids and a simple goal: listening to everyday people from all walks of life.

In one of the film’s most moving moments, the Leavertons visit with Mechelle Brown in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She describes losing her first baby during delivery due to a lack of proper healthcare at the hospital. Her enduring pain is palpable. “Meeting Mechelle was a turning point in my life,” Erin reflects. “It’s the first time I realized why you need to say Black Lives Matter. In my life previous to that moment, I didn’t understand why it needed to be said. I thought, ‘isn’t it obvious that all lives matter?’ And the answer is ‘no, it’s not obvious.’ And it’s important that we, as her white brothers and sisters, acknowledge that her life matters, and her daughter’s life mattered.” Through this encounter and others, the Leavertons realize that beneath the surface of our divisions is a deep-seated hierarchy of human value. Scholars have documented how that pernicious belief has infused every facet of American life for centuries. Yet, Mechelle’s story of heartbreak and resentment, nested inside the Leavertons’ story of shame and awakening, speaks to this truth on a visceral level.

The science behind stories

The authentic and poignant stories depicted in these two films, both of which Einhorn Collaborative supported, invite us into emotionally vivid worlds from the comfort of the couch (note: The Reunited States will be streaming in February). In recent years, scholars have shed light on why and how stories can elicit empathy and spark prosocial behavior. Neuroscience research, for example, has pinpointed the neural mechanism in the brain that’s responsible for empathy and the experience of being “transported” by a story – when your heart starts racing or your palms start sweating. Oxytocin, which is released in the brain and – as we know from our Bonding work, in the gut – when we feel close to each other or simply imagine that feeling, can make us want to help others. Studies have also found that stories are more persuasive than just stating facts. And research on moral elevation, the feeling of witnessing human goodness, has shown that it not only brings out optimism but also increases our sense of common humanity and makes us want to help others.

The science of stories is fascinating and affirming. It’s also clear that we need powerful stories now more than ever; to lift our spirits and widen our circle of concern. The pandemic has created a widespread sense of dejection and anxiety, physical distancing has made it harder to connect in person, and the political moment is fraught with uncertainty. With shared facts and objective truth under siege, an intellectual case for openness and respect across divides becomes inadequate. Fortunately, there’s an abundance of high-quality content that brings diverse voices and experiences to our screens, earbuds, and bookshelves.

Telling and gathering stories in our own lives

We can also be storytellers and story gatherers, no boom mics required. There are innovative organizations like Narrative 4 and The Moth that make storytelling accessible and impart the skills of listening and perspective-taking. StoryCorps, a longstanding Einhorn partner, enables people to record interviews anchored in simple but searching questions that yield profound insights and beautiful stories (they also share curated story excerpts through a range of channels). I conducted my first StoryCorps interview five years ago with my then 93-year-old grandmother, Elaine. She talked about her childhood, her wartime marriage to my grandfather (honeymoon dinner at Longchamps cost $2!), raising my mom and her sisters, and bearing witness to nearly a century of American history. When I asked her about her abiding sense of optimism and gratitude, she said, “My cup has always been half full. When I see my family, I can’t help but be happy. I think my heart must be awfully big, because I adore every one of them.” When my grandmother passed away in August, our StoryCorps conversation became a treasured artifact for my entire family.

As the pandemic took hold, the team at StoryCorps worked fast to launch StoryCorps Connect so that people can record stories remotely. StoryCorps recognized, as others have too, that the need to physically distance makes it all the more pressing that we stay connected. How might you do that over the holiday weekend? StoryCorps is once again conducting The Great Thanksgiving Listen, an initiative to encourage young people – and people of all ages – to record an interview with an elder, mentor, friend, or someone they admire. Why not take the time to “sit down” for a StoryCorps interview with someone who’s had a profound impact on your life; perhaps a person you’d ordinarily visit on this holiday. Bring a spirit of curiosity and a willingness to be unsettled by what you hear. Even if it’s someone you know well, the stories might surprise and inspire you, maybe even change you.

Jon Gruber leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Building strategy. Learn more about our work in Building and more about Jon. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jon’s blog posts.