Naming the Narrative: Victim or Villain?

January 18, 2021

By Bette Dickinson

Brene Brown, in her work on Rising Strong as A Spiritual Practice, writes about how our brains are hard-wired to create a story. When we go through traumatic, painful, or even just stressful circumstances, we come up with stories. We need a fast, efficient way for our bodies to recognize – who is the threat? Who is the villain and how do I either defeat them or get away from them?

The problem is, we form stories from gut, knee jerk responses to anxiety, shame, and stress. When we only operate out of this part of the brain, we tend to make snap judgements about our world, ourselves, and the real threat. And when we do this, we often get the story wrong. We create a false narrative based on an oversimplified view of ourselves, others, and our world.

We don’t see the world for the nuanced, complex reality that it is. We see things as right or wrong, hero or villain. And if unchecked, when we start to believe and live into those stories, they become our reality.

So how do we figure out what our false narratives are in order to replace them with true ones? Brown describes this in the process as the Reckoning, the Rumble, and The Revolution.

The Reckoning is where we name our knee jerk perceptions of our pain from fight or flight reactivity. We name the story we are telling ourselves in our pain.

The Rumble is where we start to uncover the lies within our stories and replace them with the truth through our logic and empathy centers of the brain.

The Revolution is when we start to live into our lives based on the truth.

For today’s post, we will dive into the Reckoning and the Rumble and handle the revolution in a later post.

The Reckoning:

Ann Lammot describes this as the s****y first draft. This is where we let out our inner 5 year old that throws tantrums and dramatizes everything. The one who cries out in pain and anger and frustration at what is happening. Some of what we may cry out is based in truth, some not. The reckoning lets it all out without needing to know which is which. Here, we tend to make polarized statements about who is the villain and who is the victim. Usually, we are the victim – whether or not this is accurate.

In the last post about lament, this is the first part of our prayer – the complaint. In this phase of our reckoning, all of our unchecked emotions come to the surface in the safety of a loving God who is strong enough to handle all of our rage and our skewed perceptions of reality.

We have to do this work, as crazy and hairy and ridiculous as it is, because whether or not we name these stories to ourselves or others, we will act them out. We will live from the narrative of the victim and villain and we will just roll through life in this survival, self-protecting mode that shields us from others and from God.

But this way of thinking causes us to drown in our own narrative. We become blind to the truth and center our emotions and thoughts on ourselves instead of God and others. In order to thrive, we have to get our other centers of the brain online – the parts of us that see things for what they are – complex and nuanced. The parts of our brain that help us to see God’s perspective and the perspective of others. Simply beginning with telling our stories within the presence of an empathetic listener (God or others) helps get this part of our brain, the cerebral cortex (logic and empathy center) engaged.

Naming Personal Narratives:

When I went through my miscarriages and struggled to get pregnant, my brain had to come up with a reason for this pain – who was the villain to blame? Me.

“It’s my fault,” I thought to myself, “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a Mom for a long time, so that’s why I’m not getting pregnant. I don’t deserve it because I didn’t desire it like others do.”

When I said this out loud to my friend Alicia, I was a little embarrassed by how ridiculous this sounded. But she named it on my behalf, “Bette, that is a lie from the pit of hell.”

I knew she was right, but until I had named it out loud, I couldn’t see how faulty this thinking was. But when Alicia sat with me in the pain of the ways that lie had crept in and poisoned me, something changed. Alicia wept with me, and petitioned with me for God to restore a new narrative. She empathized and lamented with me. And as she did, I started to let go of a lie that had crept in. My hands opened to receive a new narrative: one that God had written (more on this in the next post).

In pain, I often shift the blame to someone as a coping mechanism because I am trying to make sense of what I feel. Evil is so reckless and unlike anything God designed. We aren’t made for evil, and so our brains have a hard time grappling with it. So we find ways of trying to rationalize it or give someone to blame for when it shows up. This was the coping mechanism of our first parents – Adam and Eve. Just check out Genesis 3.

Sometimes, God is the villain. Sometimes I am my own villain. And sometimes, those who have hurt me are the villains.

The World’s Narrative

In the pain of our world, we do the same thing. We look for someone to blame for the mess. The media takes advantage of this all the time by painting stories of our world that show us who the victim is and who the villain is. When we don’t step back to name this narrative and sift out the more complex reality, we are often unwittingly shaped by what a particular political party or agenda wants us to see. This goes for both sides of the political aisle and this way of thinking causes polarization, villainization, and dehumanization of those different from us.

When we villainize the other – we delude ourselves by thinking there is no villain within us and easily fall into the trap of self-righteousness. If the villain is always, “out there,” then we never have to deal with the villain “in here.” The one within us that is prone to things like racial profiling or gender bias or ruthless hate and judgement. Or less severe – the oof within us that’s prone to forget something simple like where we misplaced our keys. (Side note: I’m pretty prone to blame my husband or kids for misplacing them somewhere and have learned over time that usually I’m the likely culprit).

But we know our lives are more complicated than this, don’t we? In all of the stories that we love in books and movies, we are compelled by characters who are dynamic. Even the greatest heroes aren’t all good – they have doubts and fears, and within them there is always a fragment of darkness. Static characters with no flaws lose interest for us. They are unrelatable. Why? Because real people aren’t like that. Real people make mistakes. And so do we.

Likewise, within the greatest villains, there is also a fragment of light. We love these stories because they portray reality. We are more complex than a hero or a villain. In a fallen world, we are both. And according to Scripture, we have more villain in us than hero most of the time.

“The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick, who can understand it?”

Jeremiah 17:9

The Rumble:

When we write our stories down or share them out loud with a trusted friend, it allows our logic and empathy centers of the brain to come back online and shows us where our beliefs are rooted in shame and fear. Shame villainizes ourselves, while fear villainizes others.

Fear and Shame Based Narratives

Shame says “I am bad, I am a villain” and fear says, “they are bad, they are a villain.” The enemy becomes the person instead of their choices. A more productive view of reality helps us to see that people are not the enemy, but that we all make choices that cause pain.

The truth is, we are not bad, but we make bad choices sometimes and it is good to experience guilt around this truth. Guilt says, “I made a bad choice,” but shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt, conviction, and accountability always leads us to repentance and correction, while shame causes us to feel stuck because we believe it’s just who we are.

Similarly, fear of the other says “they are a threat,” versus, “they made some choices that make me feel threatened and afraid.” Addressing those choices and exposing them to the truth brings accountability, reconciliation, and healing, while naming someone as a threat causes division. Rightly placed fear allows us to seek protection and accountability for the choices of others that cause harm, while still allowing for the opportunity for them to seek repentance and restoration.

When we take the time to sift through “What is true? What is fear-based? What is rooted in shame? What perspective am I not seeing here? What am I missing?” When we expose the narrative, it’s more clear what the lies are.

And then we begin to see who the real villain is: sin, death, and evil.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms

Ephesians 6:12

We are not our own enemy. Those who have hurt us are not our enemy. Republicans are not our enemy. Democrats are not our enemy. Those who write news stories are not our enemy. God is not our enemy.

Evil is our enemy. Sin is our enemy. Death is our enemy. The lies of the evil one are the enemy. Fear and shame are the enemy. Injustice is our enemy. Hate is our enemy. Disease is our enemy. Racism is our enemy. White supremacy is the enemy. The spiritual forces of evil behind the structures and systems of our world are our enemy.

A Practice:

Take an area of your personal life or the world where there has been pain and suffering and work through the Reckoning and the Rumble process.

Reflect:

The Reckoning: Write down your s****y first draft with no filter. Write down the story – either a personal one or one you’ve seen play out in the media. What happened? How do you feel about it? Who is to blame? Who is the villain? Who is the victim? As you write it out – what is already starting to surface about a faulty narrative? What is oversimplified or flat out ridiculous?

The Rumble:

Take a step back and evaluate this based on what you know to be true within yourself, and within Scripture. Ask:

  • What am I believing right now? Is it true?
  • Who or what am I blaming? Who is the villain? Is this accurate?
  • What does Scripture say about this?
  • What perspectives do I need to go seek out in order to see a more clear picture of the truth? The goal here is seeking understanding of the missing perspectives, not seeking to confirm what you already believe.

A Prayer:

Lord,

Would you help me to name before you the story I have been telling myself and living into? Would you help me to bring this to you so that You can shine your light on it and show me the truth? Help me to see beyond my limited perspective to see Yours and the perspectives I have not yet considered. Help me to walk with You in this process to surrender my own understanding so that I might receive Yours.

Amen

For more of Bette’s amazing work, please check out Seed of hope

  1. Gina says:

    Wow! Very insightful and thought provoking! Great reminder of who our real enemy is.

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