Sitting with someone else's story, whether in books, movies or in real life, can sometimes feel challenging. Any true story or fiction worth it's salt will address how the protagonist deals with their dilemma (di-lemma, from Greek; literally, "a double proposition"), and in that challenging moment we find ourselves fitting ourselves in the protagonist's moccasins; pitting ourselves against their challenges.
Because our own life choices are often too close to home, these stories can reveal to us a truth - that we too, in seeing how we might have acted, have many different sides to us. We are not always good, not always bad, but definitely have some capacity for both depending on the context.
In 'The Gulag Archipelago', Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes in gory detail how the oppressors and victims of Stalin's communist regime gradually solidified into their roles. In a now-famous quote, he writes, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil".
Take the stories from our fairy tales. Although written in the middle-ages, cloaked in fantastical ambiguity, and ostensibly for children, our fairy tales are worth re-reading. If there are morals to these fairy tales, they are not hard-and-fast. They honour the sovereignty of the individual and the context-dependent appropriateness of their decision. When Gretel kicks the charming forest-witch into the oven, it is literally murder, but given the total set of circumstances, even a child can see the wisdom in it. More subtle and metaphorical - but also holding unconventional wisdom - is Gretel's rejection of the devouring (i.e. all-consuming, over-bearing) mother archetype in her refusal to be fattened up anymore.
All of our favourite characters are flawed. There is no end to the examples, with the more fascinating protagonists having more sides to them. Tony Soprano is a family man by day; Walter White's heart skews good before breaking bad; Harry Potter is scarred for life and can speak to snakes; Frodo and Gollum must journey to the very fires of Mount Doom before their conflicted hearts and minds mingle with chance and their final schizophrenic acts are played out.
'The Biggest Bluff' is a fascinating true story I read recently of one woman (another Russian) and her foray into the world of poker as an investigative journalist. With self-deprecating humour and humility ('humus', latin for 'ground', the crucial root and connection of both words), Maria Konnikova reveals her path from poker newbie to poker-pro champion over the course of a deeply immersive year in the field. During the early competition days, she details her encounters with various 'poker-sharks' who successfully sweet-talk the naïve Maria out of her chips even before the game starts. Before she ever knew what was happening, the sharks' affable pre-game conversations succeed in getting her to think of them as 'nice', before pouncing super-aggressively at the tables. She had been had; strung up, as puppet-like as Pinocchio. But she had potential.
While initially naïve in the field of poker, Maria worked 10-14 hours a day to learn whatever she could to improve. Mentored by Eric Seidel, a 'G.O.A.T' candidate in the poker world, Maria dived into the technical and mathematical aspects of the game, and put into practice the theory of her psychology background. Slowly, she becomes super-aware of her competitors' tactics and her own psychological tendencies (some of which she can trace back to childhood). She learns lessons quickly - because there is thousands of dollars at stake - on how to make the right decisions.
To analogise - as Konnikova often does - our lives to poker, you would sit prettier at the table if you learned the giveaways and 'tells' of other people; much prettier again if your learned your own. Much of the work here involves familiarisation with the cast of ephemeral selves floating around in you. Keeping an external poker face is easy, Konnikova says; it's maintaining an internal equanimity in the moment that is the real test.
Consider the story of yet another Russian: Dostoyevsky's protagonist of 'Crime & Punishment', Rodion Raskolnikov. This man committed - on the face of it - the perfect crime, leaving no evidence whatsoever linking the authorities to the murder he committed. But while the external authorities would never catch up to him, we read how his conscience tortured him day and night - his internal punishment exactly fit the crime. So keep calm and murder on then? Not quite. The point is that you are the person you will always have to live with, therefore management of everything else hinges on self-management. The more clearly and objectively you can observe your multitude of selves, the more choices open up for your next action, your next play.
And in this sense, you need to work with the bare bones - the facts of the matter. Your body feelings don't lie for example, but your mind sure does when appraising them. You need to be humble, admit to what you don't know for sure, and only work with what you know objectively. You don't want to work with the oppressor in you who deals exclusively in greed and who whispers promises of domination in your ear. Conversely, you don't want to listen entirely to the victim in you who cries out: "It's all hopeless!", before folding too early.
One of my favourite stories of all time is 'A Christmas Carol'. If 'spirituality' has anything to do with ego-dissolution, then this is definitely a 'spiritual' story. 'A Christmas Carol' has the inspiring message - not just for Christmas - that we can all transform ourselves for the better. Scrooge begins as the most miserable man in town. His heart is blackened and shriveled for all around to see. The old neglected parts of him gradually come to the surface over one night, represented by three spirits who present shocking doses of truths. His resistances are over-powered by the time the final spirit is through with him. He wakes on Christmas Day transformed, with a born-again zeal and affirmation of life. As his previous miserable self was obvious to those around him, his new self - kind and open-hearted - can now be seen just as clearly.
Transformation in this way is possible. For the sake of a good story, Dickens had Scrooge's transformation happen passively to him. For the rest of us, a fraction of such transformation requires some spiritual work. Stories can act as spirit-stirring 'gateway drugs' into more personal spiritual inquiry, but when you begin to listen to - and not necessarily heed - the multitude of your own selves, allowing them to be there compassionately, as something which already exists, then you are cultivating self-awareness. You are becoming more aware of your own blind-spots and resistances, your own strengths and opportunities for growth. This is an ongoing practice; sometimes uncomfortable. But to look away again is to return to a smaller self. Being a hero on this hero's journey calls on you first of all, to come face to face with yourself.