Literary Motivation to Act on Truth
How can we inspire ourselves and others to live the truths we find in the stories we read and write? How have such stories inspired and motivated you?
In prior posts, we’ve explored some of the many reasons we write and read, the benefits of Whole, Healing, and Broken stories, and also focused on the avoidance of “preaching”, by showing rather than telling as much as possible. Today, let’s tie it all together even tighter.
Truth often becomes apparent to us as we engage with the books we read — and even as we write our own stories. The truths we discover, or rediscover, help to bring about changes in our readers, ourselves, and our society. But, how do such stories inspire truth-seeking and truthspeaking, and how can we improve our ability to inspire action on the truths we discover and reveal? In preparing this week’s writing tips, I thought about many specific books and stories that have influenced my own life and I pondered the ways they have done so. If any of the titles I cite are unfamiliar, I invite you to seek them out and share in the motivation they have provided to me.
Some General Characteristics of Motivational Writing:
They Provide Encounters with Examples for Emulation.
Who we are and what we do have greater influence and power than what we say or claim. When we see “the character of a character” in action, we can be inspired to follow their example — whatever aspect of that example we may sense we need. From the heroes and heroines of the stories we read and write, we can learn to become the change we wish to see in our own worlds, however public or private those worlds may be.
For example, as a child I was impressed with the ingenuity and bravery I saw in Alvin Fernald (The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald, by Clifford B. Hicks), but my relationship with my own younger sisters was also improved by observing the growth of Alvin’s relationship with his little sister, Daphne, who idolizes him. After she helps him to rescue Mrs. Huntley from her kidnappers, he even stops referring to her as “The Pest”!
In A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, the flawed and dissolute Sydney Carton sacrifices himself at the guillotine to save the husband of the woman he loves, and to redeem his otherwise wasted life and potential. In his selflessness, I see an ennobling rebirth of spirit that I can aspire to through my own repentance and mighty change of heart, even if such reformation does not require my own death.
One of my favorite scenes in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is when Elizabeth Bennet is confronted by the imperious Lady Catherine DeBourgh. After mercilessly grilling and insulting Elizabeth, Lady Catherine attempts to extort a promise from her to never become engaged to Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth’s response to this “great lady” thrills me every time I read it: “You have widely mistaken my character, if you think I can be worked on by such persuasions as these. How far your nephew might approve of your interference in his affairs, I cannot tell; but you have certainly no right to concern yourself in mine. I must beg, therefore, to be importuned no farther on the subject. … I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.” — BAM! — mic drop — I love the fortitude, self-confidence, and self-control that Elizabeth shows in resisting the prideful and presumptuous interference of others in her life while not retaliating with insulting invective.
They Reveal or Spark a Remembrance of Truth.
The greatest stories speak the truth. Falsehoods, and ideas that merely sound good instead of being good and sound, may move us in the moment, but they lack the virtue to stand against opposition and make a difference.
Among the many paradigm-shifting truths expressed by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is this gem that has guided me ever since I first read it: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Dr. Frankl’s account of surviving the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp inspires me to recognize that when I am confronted with trouble, the sanest response is to correct what I can and adapt to everything else. Perhaps this recognition of my power to change, and to choose my response to circumstances, is why another, similar, quotation stands next to this one in guiding my response to the vicissitudes of life: “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.)
Because I teach in the Department of Corrections (at a local prison), I work with some of the most challenging individuals imaginable. In the midst of the trials I encounter, I cling to the truth that: “In every moment…we choose to see others either as people like ourselves or as objects. They either count like we do or they don’t. In the former case we regard them as we regard ourselves, we say our hearts are at peace toward them. In the latter case, since we systematically view them as inferior, we say our hearts are at war.” (The Arbinger Institute, The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict). This truth of human nature and interaction reminds me to strive for a “heart at peace” toward my students. I can’t tell you how many times over the past 12 years I have had students express to me that, while they know I will not accept their bad behavior, they have personally felt accepted and respected.
Similar to the foregoing truth is this one: “Being mistreated is the most important condition of mortality, for eternity itself depends on how we view those who mistreat us.” (James L. Ferrell, The Peacegiver: How Christ Offers to Heal Our Hearts and Homes.) This is why I strive to forgive as quickly as possible when I have been hurt or offended. Withholding my forgiveness has no bearing on the Final Judgement that will be made upon the one who has hurt me. Whether he repents or not, my grudge will not increase his condemnation or reverse divine forgiveness; but my refusal to let it go can and will have an impact on my own heart and Judgement. If my heart is at peace, and I forgive, that forgiveness does not set an unrepentant offender free; it does, however, set me free of the bitterness and burdens I would otherwise carry.
They Present Quality Content
For a story or text to be potentially life-changing and motivational, it should be crafted with care and include quality content. Truths have power, even if they are expressed poorly, but how much more powerful are truths that are expressed well? That is why I especially love poetry and poetically crafted prose. There is so much that comprises my own “half of the poem” when I encounter wondrously written lines such as these:
- “They also serve who only stand and wait.” (John Milton, On His Blindness.)
- “I could not love thee, dear, so much, / Loved I not honor more.” (Andrew Marvell, To Lucasta, Going to the Wars.)
- “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: / The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting, / And cometh from afar: / Not in entire forgetfulness, / And not in utter nakedness, / But trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home…” (William Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality)
- “…Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson, )
- “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” — Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
- “There will be more joy in heaven over the tears of a repentant sinner than over the white robes of a hundred just men.” (Victor Hugo, Les Misérables)
- “Before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s the point at which most people give up.” (Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist)
- And finally; witness the power of one poetically perfect word to convey meaning:
- “Always.” — Severus Snape, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
They Include the Realistic Application of Truth
In well-written stories, truthspeaking is consistent with the world in which it occurs, and yet it is expressed in a manner that also makes it memorable, applicable, and transferable to the reader’s life. Unlike the world of Narnia, our world has no anthropomorphic animals, White Witches, or Christlike lions, and yet we recognize universal themes such as good and evil, betrayal and forgiveness, and atonement, that are vital to every other truthspeaking world. (Stay tuned for a future post in which we’ll dive deeper into the use of symbols and archetypes to communicate truth.)
That is how your truthspeaking tales can resonate effectively with readers: use them to present realistic applications of truth that are recognizable and transferable to the lives of those who read them. Through our creation and consumption of these recognizable truths, we suggest attributes that readers can emulate and apply, themselves. Through such teaching, and by experiencing the realistic living application of truth in such stories as The Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird, I am motivated to reach out to others and serve and lift them, because my heart is at peace and I see my fellow men as brothers and sisters in need of help and worthy of love and compassion.
They Touch Our Emotions and Elevate Our Spirits
Motivational stories can inspire a change in mood from sad to happy, from hopeless to hopeful, and from scared to brave. They help us to experience empathy for characters and situations, even if that also means making us unsettled and uncomfortable so that we are motivated to improve our world or ourselves. (More on this, later.)
Hearts can be touched as we engage the senses: what we read may have less initial impact than what we are made to feel and vicariously experience — the mind and heart and imagination all work in symphony to create an inward sense of the message (if any) that is presented by authors to their readers. I love stories that are rich with sensory detail, that enable me to feel that I am there present with the characters.
As we write or create, we can also choose to engage our reader’s and viewer’s emotions. I am always touched, for example, by the selflessness of Della and Jim, the young couple who sell their prized possessions in order to buy Christmas presents for each other in O. Henry’s classic story, The Gift of the Magi; and by the heartfelt wisdom shared by the dying Morrie Schwartz in Mitch Ablom’s true account, Tuesdays with Morrie.
They Intrigue Our Intellect
Another tool of change is the intellect. For principles of Truth to be effective, both heart and mind must be engaged to some degree. Many truths are simple and pure, and can be expressed in terms that even a child can grasp. They are intuitively experienced and accepted by readers like a telepathy of Truth to our spirits. Others kinds of knowledge are strengthened through reason and persuasion. Truth is constant, consistent, and all-encompassing, but sometimes it needs a little explaining. When truth is revealed and change is advised, such truths and changes must be sustained and supported. What cannot be defended is soon abandoned, so we need to own and mean the changes we espouse and be able to explain and defend them. Even truths that are primarily known by the spirit can be articulated and discussed rationally and logically — following a chain of related truths that built upon and sustain each other.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am a prison educator. I have daily opportunities to think poorly of my inmate students and see them as “objects” — instead of human beings and “fellow passengers to the grave”, as Charles Dickens would say. I endure their insults and abuse and disrespect, and I hear frequent arguments (even from them) that I am wasting my time trying to rehabilitate them. However, in the face of such persuasions, I have been motivated to maintain a more generous and humane (but firm, fair, and consistent) outlook, by reading and following the convincing truths and principles contained in books such as: The Anatomy of Peace, (quoted before); Verbal Judo, by George J. Thompson; and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey.
They Reveal Deficiencies, Encourage Virtues, and Inspire Change.
Even in Broken stories, the opposition of truth with falsehood is instructive. This is why many of such tales are so powerful and potentially motivating. We can “learn truths in the absence of Truth” through such content, and be moved to make corrections in our own lives and world. This is the power of a “good” villain — whether that be an external force to be reckoned with, or not. We can motivate changes in belief and behavior by judiciously shining a light upon things we often prefer to keep in darkness.
Contemplate the real truths that are missing or distorted (and thus “hidden in plain sight”) within the following examples:
“All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.” (George Orwell, Animal Farm)
“And on the pedestal, these words appear: / ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias.)
“War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” (George Orwell, 1984.)
“I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.” (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein.)
“He who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.” And, “Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved” (Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince)
“Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe; Why but to keep you low and ignorant, His worshippers; he knows that in the day Ye eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear, Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then Open’d and clear’d, and ye shall be as gods.” (John Milton, Paradise Lost.)
As we touched on before, people don’t usually change unless they’re uncomfortable in some way. It’s an emotional and psychological inertia — a heart and mind that is comfortable or stagnant will remain comfortable and stagnant until it is acted upon by additional truth. Through confrontation with evil or error, we can motivate action. Stories can hold up a mirror to those of us who read them, and thus reveal our defects and deficiencies. When we come into contact with a need or desire to change, stories can motivate us to make the adjustments or revolutions that only we can make in our lives. They offer hope and show us that change is wise and progress is possible.
The deficiencies we discover don’t even have to be bad ones. The “discomfort” that we can cause our readers to feel need not be unpleasant. How often do stories help us to cultivate a desire to more often and more deeply experience beneficial things such as love, adventure, courage, victory, and so forth, even if our lives are happy as they are
Stories can also motivate us by encouraging us in our virtues and helping us to recognize our strengths. By reading stories in which characters bravely defeat their enemies and demonstrate fortitude, we can strive to be brave ourselves, have patience in affliction and hard times, and have hope that whatever enemies or hardship we may experience, we can endure to the end and come out on top. A final example of such truth in fiction: When life is hard, and we feel beaten down and crushed by the circumstances and “Miss Minchin’s” of our lives, we might remember the words of Sara Crewe in her little attic room: “Whatever comes cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.” (Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess).
Even if our readers seem outwardly unchanged at our story’s end, we can still feel successful in sharing and speaking truth — because the first step in making any change is for the intended audience to come face to face with the opportunity to do so. What the receiver does with their “half” of the opportunity is up to them.
What moves you to act on truths you encounter? What stories have inspired you to change or to seek for greater happiness or strength? Whatever positive influence you have experienced in art or literature, “go and do thou likewise.” Use your own experiences with motivating truths to motivate and inspire others.
I promise that you and the world will be better for the added light and lift you share.