Storytelling and the myth gap: the American dream

Building AmericaHere is where storytelling gets interesting. It’s not just about writing an engaging plot. The bigger picture is about using myths. Myths play a powerful role to explain what’s going on and help us connect with others in a shared story.

In our modern, rational society, we tend to think of myths as either a lie or as something that’s important only to primitive peoples. But myths are important to all societies. They help us create meaning and bring us together. They help us interpret and understand the world.

Jonah Sachs defines three ingredients of myths in “Winning the Story Wars.”

1. Symbolic thinking. “Myths are neither true nor untrue, because they exist in a separate space and time,” Sachs said. Myths are often placed in a separate reality, long ago or far away. They help us see the world and its truths by using powerful symbols.

Star Wars would not have engaged the imaginations of so many people for so many years if the movies didn’t include myths of the underdog vs. the powerful, the wise man who teaches the young man how to live, and so on.

2. Story, explanation and meaning. The myth of the American dream is important to our country. It explains our foundations and our belief in individual success.

Story: Americans fought the British and its system of class and privilege. We founded an exceptional nation, based on beliefs in liberty, merit and self-discipline.

Explanation: That’s why every American has an opportunity for success and prosperity.

Meaning: “So if you work hard, you too will be rewarded.”

3. Ritual. Powerful myths provide powerful morals. People have always used ritual to help connect myths, their morals and the symbolic world to their own lives. A Passover Seder or Catholic mass uses ritual to connect participants to God and the meaning of the Bible’s myths. People might connect to the American dream through a family gathering to sign a first mortgage. Immigrants often participate in a ritual when they become American citizens.

The myth gap

In today’s world, Sachs says, we suffer from a myth gap. Scientific thinkers want to know if something is true. They reject symbolic thinking. We have similar gaps in story, explanation, meaning and ritual. Religion, science and entertainment all offer pieces but not the entire package.

According to Sachs, marketers have stepped in to fill the gap with symbols like the Marlboro Man. We declare our tribe by the logo on our clothing or coffee cup. These symbols connect us, but without larger meaning.

More recently, movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have stepped into the symbolic sphere. While their myths differ, they have similarities. Both opposed to ruling elites, but the Tea Party’s villain is big government and Occupy Wall Street’s villain was big corporations. Both wanted to give people a chance to realize the American dream.

The subtitle of “Winning the Story Wars” is “Why those who tell–and live–the best stories will rule the future.” Those who make the most effective use of myths will rule our future. Sachs says we need to develop better myths in order to change our future. Watch for more in later posts.