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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Heroic Imagination

A few months ago, I was listening to a TEDtalks podcast by Philip Zimbardo, psychologist an author of The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil. He spoke at length about the worst parts of our human nature, but offered a caveat: the heroic imagination. He spoke of, and speaks of, the central role of the "the heroic imagination" is fostering the best in us. If we see our lives in the context of heroism, if we look for those opportunities to play the role of hero in our own lives, when those opportunities arise, however rarely they may, we seize on them.

Politics can feel decidedly cynical. It can feel systemically broken. It can even feel in the best moments, like a fool's errand. What, we ask ourselves, can we really change? We work our way down into miserable details. We ask what Democrats can do without a "filibuster proof" majority. We look at the overwhelming problems Obama faces in his first term, and raise our eyebrows. It's wonderful that he won, we say to ourselves, but what will he really do?

The truth is...what he's done is win. In doing so, he has created, and lived, the sort of narrative that can change lives. Make no mistake: we all live in a world of storytelling. We tell ourselves the story of our own lives each day; we watch fiction and we watch reality; but we process it all the same way. We see ourselves in the context of something larger, and we connect ourselves to that context.

The story of the last eight years, and even further back, has been one of deep cynicism. We have seen even our favorite politicians sign DOMA and humiliate themselves before the public. We have seen a worst case scenario in the last eight years: a perfect storm of nepotism, cronyism, fundamentalism, authoritarianism and criminality. We have seen our country torture. We have seen our country wage illegal wars. We have allowed our own civil liberties to be fundamentally altered and attacked. We have seen leadership that is beholden to no one. George Bush's only rebuke will be his legacy; he will not be prosecuted, he will not serve jail time. He will, for all he's done, receive far less punishment for his crimes than a young man might for selling pot.

It's the sort of story that makes a person dead, acquiescent.

Barack Obama offers more than policies (although we can hope, as adults, that he'll fulfill his practical promises). He offers a new American story; the sort we had always imagined to be true. He's created a new paradigm of what's possible; not just what's imaginable. And in doing so, he's offered food to the hunger in all all to be heroic. It will, it's my belief, make our children better, our workplaces better, our churches better, our citizenry more trusting of one another, our families stronger, and the world around us a little brighter. Not because in every instance human beings have changed, or because government has suddenly transformed; but because we can tell ourselves a true story and let it inspire us. On a grander scale than was available to us before.

Often, in the arts, we become so embroiled in evidences of human failing, and telling cautionary tales, that we lose the thread of the reason we do this. We don't serve the public by reminding them that they are weak; we serve them by reminding them that they can be strong. We help to define the parameters of human nature outside our immediate experience. We should remember to tell stories about blindness so that we can help people see. It's how we contribute to the public good. We know that has value. That's why the election of Obama has value: it is the sort of story that, in the telling, in the living, makes all of us a little more of who we are, and helps us see who we can be. As individuals, and as a people.

There is no use in denying that people can be bloodthirsty, prejudiced, manipulative, and cruel. There is no denying the proof in history that we can be fooled, torn apart, and made animals. There is now, also, no denying that we can take individual faiths in goodness and turn that into something real. Something that matches the worst of us; and can even suppress or destroy it. There is no denying that we can do right, be good, and change.

It's a good day to be one of the good guys.


Scott Walters said...

Great post, Matt.

Pam said...

This is really beautifully said, and I couldn't agree more.

jengordonthomas said...

beautiful post, matt.

Joshua James said...


as a self-motivated competitive writer I am supremely jealous you wrote this and I did not.

seriously though, great work. bastard. heh-heh.

heroworkshop said...

"We tell ourselves the story of our own lives each day; we watch fiction and we watch reality; but we process it all the same way. We see ourselves in the context of something larger, and we connect ourselves to that context."

I loved this passage. It's such an important concept and you wrote it brilliantly.