Most of us live life within an assumed narrative, a story where we (and those like us) are the assumed good guys in the story. The story has assumed bad guys too. They’re usually people or groups of people who are not like us. It feels secure to know who the good guys are (and to be one of them) and to know who the bad guys are. Certainty is security. Assumption is blinding.
There’s no easier way to avoid empathy for someone else’s pain than to categorize them as a bad guy in your own assumed narrative.
This narrative provides us with a framework of thought that allows us to easily make sense of the world we live in. Individuals can easily be sorted into our ready-made good guy/bad guy categories. Instances can easily be forced into our narrative.
We understand our narrative. We rarely ever examine it, if at all. But we assume it. It is the lens through which we examine and interpret everyone and everything else. Through this lens, we think we understand instances and individuals. But really all we understand is our narrative. We assume understanding on the front end of any situation or event.
When we assume understanding, we don’t seek to understand. You don’t look for what you are certain you already have. You don’t learn when you already know. This is pride and arrogance but to us, it just feels normal and right. And we really need to protect normal and right. We need to protect our narrative.
But we are seekers in our core. We must seek something. So if we do not seek understanding (because, after all, we already understand), instead we will seek to reinforce our assumed narrative. We will seek vindication for our rightness. We will seek to feel more secure in our certainty.
In our world, our access to the vast majority of individuals and instances that process through our filter/lens/narrative comes through media. Because we are seeking to feel vindicated in our rightness about our assumed narrative, we gravitate toward media sources that provide that.
This…all of the above…is what has to change if things are going to really change.
Many of Jesus’ parables were designed to affect exactly this kind of change. He would tell a story with little or no explanation. But in the story, those you assumed were the bad guys wound up being the good guys. Those you assumed were the good guys, wound up being the bad guys. The good son who never did anything wrong wound up missing the party. The Samaritan wound up being the hero. The Master’s servants wound up killing his messengers and ultimately his Son.
Jesus’ listeners heard these stories, not as clever sermon illustrations, but rather as subversive invitations. Jesus was challenging them to rethink their narratives. Jesus was challenging them to let go of their assumptions about who the bad guys and good guys are. Jesus was inviting them to learn instead of already knowing, to seek understanding instead of assuming it.
In our world, today, we need to make similar adjustments.
Everyone assumes they and those like them are the good guys. This can’t be true, because there are obviously bad guys. This means that some who think they’re the good guys are actually the bad guys. Rather than carrying settled assumptions about this, it might be wise to simply live life with the assumption that: “sometimes I’m the good guy, but maybe sometimes I am (and those like me), are the bad guy in the story.” Only this kind of humility positions me to change. Imagine if everyone embraced just this one attitude.
This attitude means that I can approach instances and individuals with a desire to understand their narrative instead of forcing them into mine.
Because I don’t assume understanding, I can seek understanding.
Because I seek understanding, I won’t remain blind to ways I myself (and maybe those like me) need to change and adjust.
Because I am open to discovering ways that I’ve been wrong, I can work toward change.
This means I can actually live with empathy and compassion. All else breeds an adversarial narrative of us/them. That narrative can only self-perpetuate. It never leads to real change. Not the kind of change that’s needed anyway.
Given the narrative I’m most likely to assume (given my background and upbringing), the last thing I need to do is listen to a steady diet of FOX News. It only reinforces my narrative. It never challenges it. For me, it is the exact opposite of how Jesus would challenge me. I’m much better off listening to NPR. Not so I can simply begin to assume their narrative. I just realize the value of having my own challenged.
Maybe your assumed narrative is different than mine. Maybe FOX News is exactly what you need if you’re seeking to understand where people who are different from you are coming from.
Challenge your narrative. Embrace humility instead of pride. Embrace empathy instead of rightness and vindication. Embrace connection. This is the change we need.