Too many stories about saving the world can cause us to lose sight of the individual people and communities that make up that world.
An English boatman, joined by two young boys, is navigating his small pleasure boat across the English Channel. But this is no pleasure cruise.
The boatman is attempting to rescue soldiers cornered along the French coastline by hostile forces. He has one boat and there are hundreds of thousands of stranded men. He knows he can’t save the world—he can’t even save a hundred men—but that’s not the point. He is doing what he can.
This is one of the key storylines in Christopher Nolan’s recent film Dunkirk. The movie was compelling and inspiring, in large part thanks to themes like this. And I think it illustrates, though not perfectly, an important point: In a time when saving the world is the cinematic norm, we storytellers would do well to tell more small stories.
You are what you see
The art we bring into our lives plays a large role in shaping how we view reality. Likewise, the stories we ingest set our standards for what kind of mark we want to leave—and how we plan to go about leaving it. Patterns of reading and watching inevitably become patterns of thinking.
Given this collective literary power, it’s troubling that nearly every movie these days (or so it seems) involves larger-than-life people, often superheroes, solving global crises. I believe this overabundance of large-scale stories, particularly in cinema, has two dangerous potential effects.
First, it can make us lose sight of the value of loving our physical neighbors: meeting their needs and taking part in their stories. As we increasingly condition ourselves to think in global terms, we neglect to look around us for those we can actually help.
Dostoyevsky portrays this sad state of mind in The Brothers Karamazov: “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together.”
And second, watching someone save the world every time we step into the theater can actually discourage us from doing anything worthwhile, rather than inspiring us to leave a mark. We start to perceive that we are average people who can’t change the world—at least not in any fashion we see portrayed on screen. It sets up expectations that we simply cannot meet.
I have experienced the shamed inaction resulting from this bombardment. I know I can’t make that much of a difference, so I stop trying to make a difference at all. What could my small actions matter on such a grand scale?
Oh, but they can and do! If the boatman in Dunkirk had stayed home thinking he couldn’t make a difference, what would have happened to the two dozen soldiers he ferried to safety? What if every English boatman had made the same choice to stay home? The success of the Dunkirk evacuation depended on each man accepting his limited sphere of influence, thereby freeing himself to make an actual impact (saving human lives).
Telling small stories
Writers and storytellers, we need to shift the balance back. Yes, there is a place for large-scale stories, but there is an equally (if not more) important place for little stories.
To that end, we must not fall prey to laziness in our storytelling. A grand scale and an impressive plot summary can mask a lack of character development. Small stories, on the other hand, center around strong characters. And it takes a lot of work to create characters that people can sympathize with and learn from, believable characters who make choices and grow. But what a noble goal! What satisfaction in knowing that you’ve tackled the problems of persons, not just the problems of people.
Humans are creatures of imitation and habit. We become what we see and read.
So let’s quit feeding ourselves this idea that the only important things are big things. Let’s remind ourselves that small things, small actions, and small places matter too.
(this article was co-authored by Ethan Weitz)