In the face of the Cold War, McCarthyism, racial division, and consumerism, the This I Believe radio program of the 1950s underscored the humanity we all share. By hearing the stories of people, from ordinary blue collar workers to famous figures, this national radio show brought Americans together and continues to do so in the form of a weekly podcast, named the same. Every year, my 12th grade English teacher asks her students to write a This I Believe essay of their own. Here’s mine:
I believe in the power of a good story on a scientific level.
In English class, we learn about the basic outline of a plot: beginning with the rising action, peaking at the climax catalyzed by the primary conflict, and concluding with the falling action. In fact, we are physiologically activated by this plot arc, as the heightening tension of a story leads to an increase in the “empathy-producing” hormone, oxytocin, in the brain. This is because, evolutionarily speaking, we are created to expend energy, in this case through the secretion of oxytocin, when it is essential to our survival.
It, therefore, makes sense that the most powerful stories are the ones that connect with the very stuff that motivates us to get up in the morning, our humanity. Think about it: every story initially catalyzes our response at a primal level. We first feel something: a rapid, emotional response of the limbic system, and only as time passes do we engage the cerebrum in analysis of the story’s broader moral implications. Stories manifest in our thoughts and conversations and evolve as we discuss them in different contexts. That’s why we care about literature and art and music- they have important personal implications that are discovered when we become emotionally involved.
Let’s take Swan Lake, the tragic love story of Prince Siegfried and Odette, a cursed swan woman. In a dramatic turn of events, the evil owl-sorcerer, Rothbart, leaves Siegfried with two choices: to keep his accidental vow to marry Odile, the magically disguised Odette lookalike, or drown alongside Odette in her inevitable death. He chooses the latter without hesitation. When the prince makes his tragic decision, every audience member- regardless of age, gender, and ethnicity -is struck with overwhelming sorrow. As the story continues, we come to appreciate the odd, morbid beauty of this scene and are left with the question, could I ever make the ultimate sacrifice for my loved ones?
It’s like Aristotle said, a story that evokes fear and pity will urge us to connect with any character because of their inevitably tragic fate. Even though Siegfried and Odette’s tragedy is terrifying, we can’t help but watch. Their tragic death strikes a collective fear within the audience that we didn’t realize we had, the fear of losing all that we hold dear at the hands of deceit, of doom. Moreover, as we watch Odette’s final solo, her arms flailing for life and her face so expressively desperate, we pity her. It is the purity of this poor thing that acted as her tragic flaw, the ultimate point of vulnerability bringing about her downfall.
When I watch Swan Lake, I am Odette. I am loyal to her friends. I hate her enemies. I cry in heartache at her struggles and in elation at her triumphs. It seems mad to be so emotionally invested in a fictional protagonist, yet everyone is guilty of it.
Art reminds us that we are weak, that we are human. This I believe.