Wonder Woman and the Power of Story

I’m writing because a movie just changed my life. (Not just mine — apparently, droves of kindergartners are becoming feminists as a result of Patty Jenkins’ brilliant film.)

Recently I hit a wall. After nine years of working in social impact, and finally writing a book about the journey (reply to this email if you’d like a signed copy when it comes out in September) I got sick of what I do.

I began to question everything. What’s the point of doing this work when the world feels like it’s burning (quite literally, what with the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement), and when my own life can feel so hard sometimes? Why do I feel a compulsion to help people on the other side of the world? And what good does it do, anyway?

Does this ever happen to you — feeling that what you do is futile?

Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. But if you’re a creative person, even if you’re blessed to have a calling and do something you believe is deeply meaningful, the threat of burnout looms large. Work cannot be our only defining glory in the world.

For many people, family and friends are a refuge. Certainly these bonds have pulled me through some dark times. But while other people buoy our spirits, they can’t solve a fundamental crisis of mind.

Stories can.

Stories shape our consciousness. They reinforce values, shape cultural norms, and spark (or squash) creativity. It dawned on me watching Patty Jenkins’ superb Wonder Woman that every major superhero movie I’ve seen to date either features a male protagonist, a romance, or a female lead who strikes me as one-dimensional and somehow denies her femininity (the Ice Queen, Femme Fatale, or Earth Mother). And in some way, we cast ourselves in the stories we absorb, and thus either limit or expand our potential.

The genius of Jenkins’ Amazon princess is her fullness. Here is a woman with a clear calling, a bold attitude, and a remarkable awareness of her own fragility. Diana falls in love, cries, gets outraged, and battles gods of war — we see the full spectrum of femaleness in her character, rather than the single story we’ve been forced to swallow in so many other narratives.

I found myself enthralled by Diana’s character, a warrior motivated by a deep sense of justice and compassion for people unrelated to her, like the real-life extreme altruists described in Larissa MacFarquhar’s excellent book Strangers Drowning (a must-read for social entrepreneurs and anyone bent on changing the world). But it’s easier to relate to a fictional character or myth than a real person, and Wonder Woman built me up more than any real-life account I’ve read. Fiction gives us permission to dream new realities.

And so I watched the movie again last week in Paris, and immersed myself again in the heroine’s journey that Diana undergoes in order to find her calling. Landing in Nairobi a few days ago, I felt a renewed passion for what I do as the clip of Diana embarking on a long journey away from home played in my head. The story comforted me, made me surer of the sacrifices I made to design a life around my calling.

So I suppose the lesson here is this: choose your stories wisely. Find fiction that empowers you, that casts someone like you as the protagonist. And allow yourself to be transported.

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