The Uncomfortable Space of Unsolvable Problems

I read an article recently that got me thinking how we engage with unsolvable problems as a western culture. The article by Kainoa Little can be found here:

I would encourage you to take a minute and read the article and mentally engage with the photos and the story that they tell.

The picture painted by the photos and the story that they tell push me into an uncomfortable silence. I want to be able to reach out and step into that space/place and solve the problem that the people of Iraq are facing. I want to see an end, and to see those people return to a peaceful happy life. Then I realize that I am powerless, there is nothing that I can do, aside from pray and ask God to intervene.

The more time I spend thinking about the situation in Iraq it begins to sink in that the Iraqi people have been enduring war for decades now. Honestly I don’t remember when the US invaded Iraq for the first time.

The hard truth is that the dates are less important than how we engage the situation and how we relate to these problems we cannot solve.

How do we engage the uncomfortable space of unsolvable problems. And as humanitarian storytellers, how do we get others to emotionally engage with these situations and at least feel empathy for the people involved rather than checking out and scrolling past?

I think the answer to that question lies in the tone of the stories we tell and the depth with which we tell them. I think that in order for people to engage there needs to be a sense of hope, a thread of resilience, heroic effort or, dignity and courage in the face of adversity. These stories need to be personal and deeply human. Long gone are the days when images of combat, war, destruction and displacement move us to compassion. We have been desensitised to these images for so long in our entertainment that they no longer hold any power over us. Honestly most of the time we are probably not fully convinced that they are real.

I recently read this article in the NYTimes, that talks about why we are choosing not to donate money to help Syrian refugees who are desperately in need of our help.

If you read the article you will find that studies have been done that show we react to marketing that is aspirational much better than to marketing that shows desperation, destruction, and hopelessness. In short we give when we can visualize a hopeful resolution to the situation.

So how do we apply the way we respond with our giving to the way we communicate with the intent of inspiring  engagement on issues. How do we move people to care deeply, above and beyond the short term goal of driving donations.

I think the answer lies in how we tell the story, and how we are looking at the situation. If we as storytellers cannot find threads of hope, dignity, courage and resilience and tell those stories in deeply personal ways we will never be able to convince the public that they are worth listening to.

We have been subconsciously programed for years though movies and novels that every dangerous situation, every conflict, every tragedy has a hidden hero waiting to emerge, a silver lining, or a beautiful sunset moment that follows the uncomfortable part.

The truth is these moments still exist even in the toughest situations. We just need a way to communicate the problem through these stories. We need to adapt our storytelling methods, beyond shocking our audiences with scale of problems and the horrors of war.

The short version is that in storytelling, hope > despair and love and human connection > fear.

I realize that this is easy for me to say from miles away where I am safe and not risking my life to tell the stories, but at my core, I care deeply about helping people engage this uncomfortable place of unsolvable problems.

In order to communicate hope and build a human connection we have to move that person from a face in the crowd to a multi dimensional human being. We need to spend time in visual character development. The audience needs a window into their life, a way to begin to understand who the person is. It is important to show that they work, they eat, they laugh, they love.

Our favorite movies and tv show have mastered this. They work hard at developing characters that we connect with, empathize with and in the end cheer for. Often we connect with the character before the real action and conflict happens in the stories we watch. We connect with them because they have children, or they are single and lonely, or tired and overwhelmed at their jobs. We connect with characters first on the mundane commonalities of life and we become their cheerleaders because of this connection.

In telling humanitarian stories whether we are covering stories of conflict or something as simple as water projects in developing countries it is important that we move beyond the expected and visually and verbally develop the characters of our stories to build empathy, connection and trust. We as storytellers need to first develop that bond, connection and admiration for the subjects of our stories. From that bond, that fascination with the individual, flows an authentic story that connects and the individual with the audience.

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