I study a lot of stories, and I am well-versed in the power of inspirational stories to uplift and entertain through shared catharsis. We can learn a lot about our own lives through storytelling. However, there is a big reason why some stories that feature characters who rise above their circumstances go down as all-time classics, and why some fall flat. It’s all in how the character handles (or doesn’t handle) their trauma.
Take Harry Potter, for instance. After his parents died at the hands of evil, he was raised by his aunt and uncle, the epitome of ignorance, hate, abuse, and neglect. When he escapes them by going off to Hogwarts, his experience there is not exactly all happy charms and spells. He narrowly escapes one plight after another until he finally has to battle the one who killed his parents. Harry Potter works because Harry appropriately faces the trauma of his past. He doesn’t succeed in spite of it, he succeeds because of it. He is the ultimate example of successful integration. He is the ultimate example of a hero.
The kinds of inspirational stories that fall flat are the ones that ignore or avoid pain altogether or offer cheap grace. For example, a football story where the guy breaks his leg in a game and decides he’s going to “push through” the pain to play anyway. Ignoring pain to get what you want is not the kind of theme that is healthy, inspiring, or true. Facing the pain and by doing so, sacrificing what you want in order to get what you need is a much more healthy option. Or how about a story where a couple loses a baby through miscarriage. They keep trying, and by the end of the story they are pregnant again. What’s missing here is grief. Without any context of grief, a story like this has no heart. It could just as easily be a story about sticking a dollar in a vending machine but the candy bar gets stuck, so in goes another dollar and it works the next time. What makes a story inspiring is not the external plot, but the internal character transformation. Perhaps if losing out on a dollar and a candy bar were given some context, it could work. Perhaps the boy who lost his money had four grandparents sick in bed at home, and even though spending that dollar meant no one would get to eat that day, he takes the risk. Perhaps if there was a golden ticket inside that candy bar that represented all the boy’s hopes and dreams. Perhaps winning that golden ticket would mean his grandpa could finally gather the energy to get out of bed to spend a magical day with his grandson… Perhaps, if we understand the context of the boy’s suffering, we will want to root for him when we meet other boys and girls who lack his hard-earned wisdom and emotional depth. Now, that is a story.
What works in storytelling also works in real life. When we avoid and ignore our pain, we are cut off from who we really are. While avoidance might help us reach a goal in the short term, such as getting through a big test or a holiday meal, it is a disastrous choice long term. Only by acknowledging pain and truly embracing the magnitude of the trauma does a person finally get to become who they are meant to be.
Rising above trauma can only be achieved via fully owning the experience, not avoiding, minimizing, and ignoring it. Yet too often, trauma survivors are encouraged to “suck it up” or “just push through” or “fake it til you make it” as a more “inspirational” ways to cope. Not only is this bad and harmful advice, this is the opposite of inspiration. To be inspired means “to breathe life into.” It means that someone is filled with a renewed energy to live life to the fullest. Cutting off a traumatic experience and telling yourself to move on is the same as cutting off your lungs and telling yourself to breathe. Trauma is hard wired into us. It is rooted inside our brains and bodies. It can not be extracted like a zit. Starving it of life-blood and oxygen is only going to make it worse. Instead, we need to give this part of us proper life-giving attention, so that it can function. Only through embracing and nurturing this part of us does trauma get to grow up and mature. Perhaps then, one day, it will move out.