The Rashomon Effect: Different Stories of the Same Events

Our lives are framed and formed by stories.  A portion of my life – and of so many others I talk to, is framed and formed by the story of the war between Hamas and Israel.  A heart wrenching, tragic, and seemingly unending story.

In fact, there are two stories.  One told from each side. Every conflict involves competing stories, and depending on who is telling the story affects the way the facts are presented, the history that is included and the morality that is emphasized.  Often one story embodies far more truth than the other.  Not in this case.   The Israeli and Palestinian stories are both true, which deepens the tragedy of it all – and makes it even more difficult to figure out a helpful response.

In 1950, Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa produced an award-winning film called Rashomon.  Some regard it as one of the best movies ever made.  It involved four characters and a “medium” telling their story — a samurai leading his wife on horseback to the city of Rashomon, the bandit who came upon them, a woodcutter who by chance happened to witness the encounter; and the “medium” who represented the soul of the samurai who was killed.  As the movie proceeds to tell four different stories, the audience experiences different versions of what happened –from the perspective of the woman, the bandit, the woodcutter and the “medium”.  Each recounts what they saw: a rape or a seduction; a murder, a sword fight, or a suicide.  Each story reflects a different cultural and gender perspective, which exposes implicit bias and imperfect memory.  All the stories are plausible; there is no clear answer; no one truth. The movie became the source of the Rashomon Effect, situations when various stories of the same event compete and contradict one another.

The ambiguity of Rashomon poses conundrums, confusion and irritation.  Which most of us resist.  Most of the time we want the unvarnished, unequivocal truth.  And in our media driven, polarized world there are no end of forces and voices that are willing to provide it.  We are increasingly being sold stories that are framed with certainty and outrage.   Different perspectives are often ignored or repudiated, and in some cases (notably the tragedy and complexity of America’s racial history) some stories are forbidden.  The intent of these elaborately framed promotions and pitches (that seek to pass for stories), is to form their audience into true believers, and adherents of their unique and often one-dimensional perspective.

There are days when I am overly tired, particularly anxious or hopelessly confused, I buy some of these stories.  They render things simple and clear.  They provide a singular perspective, which is sometimes more important than having them be accurate.  So many of us buy what I call performative stories – which is why politicians, pundits, publicity mavens and preening preachers keep selling them.

There is an antidote to this flood of packaged stories.  It is to tell our own story.  To ourselves at first – and then to others.  Not the resume story of all the A’s we have achieved – be they achievements, awards, accolades, accumulations or affirmations.  Those are the stories we sell – to ourselves and to others.  Some of those A’s we have amassed over the years are important, but they do not provide the full perspective.  The stories we need to acknowledge are the stories of losses and learnings, of values and how we arrived at them and how important they are, of our moments (or chapters) of defeat and resilience. Those are the stories that framed and formed us.  Those are the stories that provide a firmer foundation for who we truly are, a foundation that enables us to better resist the stories that are being sold to us, particularly the stories that others construct for us regarding our own lives. 

Compared to the ubiquity, budgets, and focus-group tested “stories” that are being sold to us, telling our own story may seem as effective as spitting on a wildfire to put it out.  And yet.  If you spend any time with someone who is committed to a twelve-step group – be it AA, Alanon, OA (overeaters anonymous), NA (narcotics anonymous), GA (gamblers anonymous), they will tell you that wrestling with their story – with all its mistakes and missteps, and then telling it openly and honestly, keeps them alive.  Attendees are called out if their stories are performative and avoid vulnerability and humility, which are cardinal values in the twelve-step world. Failures are just one part of the full story.  The resilience and commitment to sobriety is another. And they need to be held together.

Our lives contain more than one true story.  The war between Hamas and Israel contains more than one true story.   We would do well to wrestle with the ups and downs of our own stories, acknowledging how they have framed and formed us.   Embracing our stories openly and honestly makes us stronger and less susceptible to the continuous barrage of one-dimensional narratives that come at us on a daily basis.  Coming to terms with the breadth and depth of our own stories is a huge need – not only for us as individuals, but for the sake of the world’s health.





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