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BEZAWADA: Storytelling itself is remarkably, unequivocally American


Column: Traipse the Fine Line

In "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," an exploration of the innovative leadership that guided America during the Antebellum South through the Civil War, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin extols former President Abraham Lincoln’s ability to manage political affairs and to lead a country.

But the basis of Lincoln’s success, asserts Goodwin, was his ability to tell a story.

Lincoln possessed a profound sense of observation and a keen interest in people’s lives. Woven from the fabric of a childhood that compelled him to sit by the hearth, where ordinary travelers from across the country stopped to rest, the folktales, fables, rumors and poems Lincoln recounted with an almost contagious vivacity were curiously unexpected of a gaunt, introverted man who sported a top hat and walked with an awkward, lumbering gait. 

And so, his fame as a raconteur had attracted significant attention even before he attained presidency.

Beyond any autocratic behavior or proven capability for governance — neither of which Lincoln possessed prior to his term as president — it was Lincoln’s expression of genuine, childlike fascination that not only kept himself sane and grounded, but also pulled the nation out of the bloody mire of the Civil War. As tragedy befell tragedy, his quick humor and sharper wit would breathe the fresh air of hope that citizens desperately needed to recover from their trauma.

Storytelling is a crucial but egregiously underrated aspect of effective leadership. It shows an in-depth understanding of world events, measures the speaker’s creativity and articulation and perhaps most importantly, reflects a great degree of empathy and emotional intelligence. 

The mid-nineteenth century in particular was characterized by the rapid industrialization and commercialization of the unraveling Western frontier, and as revolutions in transportation, culture and science began to transform daily living at an unprecedented pace, Lincoln’s dynamic narrative ability was the blessing no one knew they needed. It evoked a sense of nostalgia and ease that reminded people of the familiarity, security and warmth of home.

Does that sound familiar? It should, because today is no different.

"Normal children today report more anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950’s,” and this was in the year 2000, according to a study conducted by the American Psychological Association. Historically, the skyrocketing speed of life justified an increase in responsibility, whose burden prior generations enjoyed the lack of, and for no group has this truth proven more self-evident than millennials and Generation Z’s. 

The bounty of information and media is more of a Pandora’s box than a gift, the consequences of which are apparent in the dramatic rise of depression diagnoses among individuals between the ages of 18 and 34. Unsurprisingly, Lincoln himself exhibited symptoms of “melancholy.”

Much of Lincoln’s condition may have arisen from his own genetics, as eyewitness accounts depict his parents in the same dreary light. The early loss of his mother and older sister worsened his gloom.

But the shocking extent to which adult figures scorned Lincoln’s love for reading may have contributed the most to his dejection.

Unfortunately, the same phenomenon persists today.

Using stories to escape the doldrums of a stagnant routine or a wildly unpredictable future is a tendency ingrained in human nature. From the days Neanderthals painted cave walls to the rhythmic verses of the earliest religions that delineated entire civilizations, storytelling has classified communities, distinguished cultures and defined ancestries. 

It is a healthy, engaging way to cope, allowing children and adults alike to reconcile their present reality with their unique experiences. It comes as no wonder that doodling and daydreaming, commonly reprimanded for being irritating distractions, are actually correlated with higher levels of brain activity.

When people allow their thoughts to wander, they push the boundaries of their conscience. They prove the formidable potential of their own minds. They give themselves hope and share it with others, crafting their own stories in the process.

Sounds very leader-like, does it not?

So why is it so condemned in today’s society? Why do children stack LEGOs and dress dolls only to have the toys pried from their hands at adulthood? Why must content be certified to deem the creator’s effort successful, and for their existence to be validated? If it is not published, do their words not matter? 

Critics bemoan their descendants’ anxiety, never questioning their own culpability in their failure to provide a safe outlet for the exploration of interests without fear of judgment, expectation or exploitation.

Lincoln’s persevering sensitivity was not a weakness, but a lasting, universal symbol of hope — one that stitched together a nation teetering on the edge of collapse. Storytelling itself is something remarkably American. It is a testament to the ideal that anyone can make something out of their own life, for their own self. Age or experience should never impede that sentiment. 

If it did, America, the controversial melting pot as we know it, would not exist.

Sruti Bezawada is a Rutgers Business School junior majoring in marketing and double minoring in Japanese and digital communications and information media. Her column, “Traipse the Fine Line,” runs every alternate Wednesday.

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*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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