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Life Lessons from Cruella and the Power of Stories

Have you seen the Cruella Deville movie yet? So good. I’m always fascinated with a good origin story. I have some metrics I use when watching movies, a few rules I apply on whether the story is categorized as good or not. And this is part of how I raised my children to critically think about the media – the books and movies and entertainment they take in – I wanted my children to be able to discern between heroes and heroines to look up to, or whether to dismiss them even though the story might be entertaining.

 

And so with that set up, let’s first talk about the metrics I use. And this comes from a philosophy I used when homeschooling my children for seven years – we applied the style of literary analysis promoted by Daniel Taylor in his book, The Healing Power of Stories, we applied his framework to how we would discuss literature.

 

The art of telling a good story is powerful. Stories and characters add meaning to our lives and can remind us that our actions have consequences.

 

To me, the best stories convey a sense of truth, they are freeing, and they leave a feeling of hope that wrongs can be righted in the world.

 

I also love how stories hold the power to re-energize me, and to promote a sense of healing. I’ve read stories that have left me feeling depleted as well, and I’ve even come across stories that have caused more harm in my psyche than good, I won’t name any names here, but this is the power of stories.

 

In a nutshell, Daniel Taylor teaches framework for literary analysis, he says:

 

Stories can be categorized into 4 buckets. And I use this metric for all media and entertainment I consume. So here are the categories.

 

#1 – Whole: Where good is good and evil is evil; in the end, good wins. A story is whole if good is good and bad is bad, and good wins in the end. Most of the classics fit into this category, all of Jane Austin, Emily Bronte, Harry Potter, and most story tellers spend their energy creating these kinds of stories. That’s the first category.

 

As society shifts its definition of good and evil, you can see how this metric can be  subjective.

 

But that’s exactly what I wanted my children to learn to define for themselves, to be critical thinkers and to analyze stories from their own beautiful minds, and be able to define for themselves, good and evil and make critically based judgements based on those definitions.

 

Okay.

 

#2 – Broken: Where good is good and evil is evil, but evil wins. I would categorize Cruella the movie, as a broken story. We’ll get back to that in a minute, and

 

Let me clear; broken stories do not mean bad stories. Many classics fit into the Broken category. In fact, we can learn a lot from broken stories. In some ways, broken stories provide the most opportunity for learning because the reader is left to conclude for themselves how they would have chosen differently, and we get to learn from the hero or the heroine’s mistakes. Some examples of other broken stories from classic literature include: Lord of the Flies and 1984 by George Orwell, or the Count of Monte Cristo. Even though both Lord of the Flies and 1984 wouldn’t be considered uplifting, they have the potential to motivate us to heal something broken in the real world.

 

#3 – Bent: this is where good is called evil, and evil is called good. Either one wins, and the author or work has the intention or tendency to try to sway the reader’s allegiance toward evil, as opposed to good.

 

Examples that come to mind are: many horror stories, pornography, and I would classify Hitler’s Mein Kampf (which I’ve actually read, though I have to say, I skimmed some of it). These stories usually leave a person feeling hopeless, nihilistic, and disempowered about the world overall.

 

A side note, nihilism is a philosophy that rejects any religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless. It holds an extreme skepticism and asserts, sometimes outright, sometimes more subtly, that nothing in the world has a real existence. It has its roots in one of the Russian revolutionary party from the turn of the century in the early 1900’s.

 

There is a pull in the human psyche to default toward nihilism, I understand its pull and its allure, because human suffering does seem so pointless sometimes, right?

 

It is a slippery slope.

 

But this is why it’s so important to be intentional with discerning the underlying messages of who and what we put on pedestals for heroes and heroines. If they are ascribing to nihilism, like the Joker from the batman movies, then we are getting into dangerous territory.

 

And here’s why: what is humanity if we don’t have hope?

 

Nihilism is the opposite of hope.

 

But back to stories.

 

Okay, the last category,

 

#4, this category is called: Healing. And healing stories are powerful in that not only do they portray good as good and evil as evil, but they leave the listener changed, healed, or profoundly moved from the experience of hearing or reading the story. Both Whole and Broken stories can be healing stories.

 

Healing stories identify both Truth, so true principles, and Hope, the idea that change is always available, and that wrongs CAN be righted in the world.

 

And so all of this does not mean that we avoid sad stories, or tragic tales because they might, on the surface seem hopeless.

 

I don’t classify the origin story of Cruella as hopeless. It is sad, and it is complicated, and as I watched it, and then thought about it, and then watched it again, I felt elevated in my desire to understand the human condition, the role of ambition, whether or not revenge is ever justified, and the role of empathy.

 

And so even now, as I think about the story of Cruella, I feel motivated to cultivate more loving kindness in my own heart space, and to heal the wounds that I carry from my childhood, and to help others who might be carrying wounds from their childhoods.

 

I think that’s the power of a good story, to motivate humans toward healing and growth and lasting change.

 

What I really wish, after watching Cruella, is that I could be her life coach. Haha

 

I would LOVE to take her on as a client. Can you please let her know that you know of a great life coach? haha

 

Because here’s what we would work on: we would work on how she tells herself her own life story, and what she makes it all mean about her own worthiness to love and be loved.

 

I would help her own her talent and her genius, and her ambition, and her desire to right wrongs. But I would help her do it from a place of clean pain versus dirty pain.

 

For more on the clean pain / dirty pain topic, you can listen to the podcast episode I’ve done previously about that.

 

But I have seen time, and time again the healing power and peace that telling your story brings; the way you tell your story.

 

What’s at the heart of this is personality development and character.

 

There’s a few moments in the movie where Cruella can make some fundamental choices that will determine the development of her personality.

 

#1 – when she finds out the woman who raised her isn’t her real mother, and her real mother is a psychopath, she has a choice to identify with her real mother, or her adopted mother. It is a confusing moment for her, actually a lot of confusing moments, not just one, and I love how the film shows Cruella wrestle with the confusion.

 

I think a lot of us do this in real life, too. We wrestle with confusion. We see things in ourselves that we carry with us from our upbringing and from our genetics, and we try to make sense of it. I want to offer to you that you have a choice in what you make all of it mean.

 

And then the #2 opportunity Cruella has in what she makes her life circumstances mean, when she sees that she has the same genius, talent, drive, and ambition as her psychopath mother, the Baroness.

 

Okay, so now what? Does that mean that it is inevitable that Cruella turn out like her mother?

 

Absolutely not.

 

Because Cruella, at least the way they portray her in this film, she shows a high proclivity toward empathy, compassion, and social justice. Those are some beautiful traits, traits that her mother shows none of.

 

I have found that we have more choice than we realize in developing our personalities. And the way to maximize our strengths, to develop them and adopt them as part of our personalities, is to first be able to identify our strengths.

 

But here’s the thing: Every character strength has its shadow side.

 

Here are some examples:

 

  • Ambition is a strength. The shadow side of it is competitiveness at all costs.
  • Intelligence, even genius is a strength. The shadow side of it is thinking you are better than others, and not being able to relate to others.
  • Talent is a strength. The shadow side is entitlement, thinking that because you have talent, you deserve special treatment in some way.

 

And so, what we choose to focus on, given our different character strength, will determine how our personality takes shape.

 

W love a good story with a good heroine because we see her use her character strengths in such a way where she grapples with the shadow side of her personality, but overcomes the shadow side.

 

And so We see ourselves in their stories, and in their choices, and we discern for ourselves what we would do or not do if we were in the same situations.

 

Cruella is a broken story since she is nuanced, she isn’t all good and all bad, and in the end good wins with the Baroness getting arrested and hauled off to prison, right? But it’s broken because it makes evil look so alluring and fun, too. Which is fine to a point.

 

But if I were to go a little deeper on HOW Cruella went about it, I don’t know if the means justify the ends.

 

For instance, the fuel and the emotion of Revenge.

 

So this brings up the question, when is revenge justified? And is it?

 

I don’t have the answer to that.

 

Classic literature has explored this question for a long time:

 

  • Heathcliffe from Whuthering Heights
  • The count of Monte Cristo
  • Luke Skywalker with Emperor Palpatine
  • And on and on. . .

 

Because life is so nuanced, and there are so many wrongs that need to be righted in the world.

 

But I do want to offer to you an alternative to revenge.

 

And it’s simply called this:

Loving Kindness.

 

How is it possible to right wrongs with the fuel of loving kindness?

 

Does that seem a little far-fetched to you?

 

I’m guessing that it does.

 

But let’s use the example of Cruella, since we’re having fun with the movie anyway.

 

What if, instead of revenge, (though delicious dahling) what if, when faced with our own suffering, or someone else’s suffering, and in our attempts to make things better, we could be moved by the motivation of adding more love to the world, instead of hate.

 

I want you to really think about that.

 

How does adding more hate into the world, right the wrongs?

 

Doesn’t it make more sense to add more kindness to take the place of hate?

 

As humans, we often use anger and outrage to escape our feelings of hopelessness and despair.

 

And the feelings of hopelessness and despair are all rooted in fear.

 

But fear lies to us.

 

Most of the fear that we have comes from the way we think, and fear driven thinking is irrational.

 

Cruella’s fear is that she is insignificant, that she won’t be taken seriously, and that she will turn out like her mother.

 

If the fear runs the show, then yes, the fear will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

Irrational fear that fuels revenge is often the result of a mind run wild, thinking that needs some corralling, some direction and some wrangling.

 

We can overcome fear by choosing not to believe the lies that fear is telling us, by choosing not to believe the thoughts driving it. Instead, we can slow down, find its root cause, and then change the thinking.

 

It’s actually quite fun to prove fear wrong.

 

But most of us don’t take the time to question our fears.

 

We think our fears are truth. Maybe because the energy, the vibration of fear in our body is so powerful, it feels like truth.

 

Just the sheer energy generated from anger and outrage can be very powerful and important for those reasons.

 

It’s as though something takes over us that is bigger than us, and it is powerful, and it is righteous, and it feels gooooood.

 

That is one of the biggest reasons why the Cruella film is so delicious. It rides the anger train in blazing glory. Not to mention the awesome sound track.

 

But anger feels powerful, because We are saying to the world - this is not okay, this is unacceptable, and we draw a line where we refuse to be mistreated any longer.

 

But how to not get lost in anger and outrage?

 

I think it depends on the Thoughts and the emotions that are driving the anger train. This again, will be so nuanced. And that’s why we can’t say anger is all good, or anger is all bad.

 

If Anger is driven by FEAR, then

 

I think we have to learn to not be defined by our anger.

 

When we start to say, “this is who I am. I am anger,” then we make ourselves even more vulnerable to becoming the very things we are trying to fix.

 

We acquire a sort of singlemindedness and tunnel vision where the fuel of revenge perpetuates the cycle.

 

This is a reflex response.

 

And by reflex, I mean it is an involuntary response, on default, without considering other possible motivating factors.

 

If we just run on the reflex of anger and outrage, we run the risk of being overly impatient and never satisfied, until we run ourselves ragged.

 

Anger isn’t bad, in and of itself. It is useful and provides a lot of clarity. I love how anger can cut through pretense, and social niceties and can bring forward truth where truth might have been overrun or unpopular.

 

But when we get lost in it, fear driven anger can become delusional.

 

We can forget that there are other possibilities, and we can get lost in singular, narrow definitions of who we are, who other people are, and the potential for change and growth.

 

I love what the Buddhist teachings say about anger: Buddhist psychology speaks of anger as a metaphor, a forest fire, which can burn wild, and cleanse, but leave us devastated and very far from where we actually wanted to go.

 

Forest fires are necessary. And so is anger.

 

It’s useful to allow anger, not to suppress the feeling of it, but also to not let the reflexive or automatic response be the place where we take action from.

 

And so yes, feel anger, feel all of it, and let it be there and move through us without identifying with it as our only truth, knowing that it is a temporary state, that it will rise and fall, and it’s our job to listen to it, then to channel it.

 

Exploring other motivating emotions, finding other forces that are every bit as powerful as outrage and anger, but without all the destruction, making room for healing that could otherwise be available to us.

 

Emotions CAN be cultivated on purpose.

 

We are not at the mercy of our moods, our reflexive default emotions, our proclivities toward the shadow side of our character traits.

 

We have more choice in all of it than we realize.

 

And so knowing this,

 

It would benefit us to spend some time cultivating loving kindness on purpose.

 

For some, loving kindness is a talent, a spiritual gift.

 

And for others, not so much.

 

There is a wide spectrum of those who are inclined toward kindness and those who are not.

 

Wherever you fall on the spectrum, consider the possibility that you CAN develop loving kindness if it isn’t something that comes naturally.

 

---

 

So let’s talk about HOW to do that.

 

The way I practice this, is in incremental steps, in kind of latter my way there. I can’t make the huge leap to love my enemies.

 

But I can do the incremental approach, the latter approach, and so I want to describe it to you.

 

The first area I focus on is to step one:

 

  • Tap into the basic goodness that is within me. I focus my thinking and bring to mind, remembering the times when I have been kind or generous before.

 

Sometimes, this step can be difficult for people, for whatever reason. If it is, I like to guide myself or whomever I’m working with, to think of themselves in their minds eye as a young child, maybe 4 or 5 years old, but making sure whatever age you bring to mind of yourself, it allows for some tender feelings of kindness to flow more easily.

 

And so as I sit with this kind of love, I just take notice of how it feels in my body. My heart space usually feels a little more open, a little more expansive, a little softer. Often what will happen, as I notice this, I’ll feel a gentle warmth wash over me as well. Or maybe a little bit of heat in my face.

 

Sometimes a gentle smile will come over me. And I’ve come to know and identify all of these sensations as the feeling of loving kindness, just a natural feeling that is available to me whenever I want to bring it up.

 

I like to sit here and pause for a moment, or even a minute or two, and just notice it.

 

Then, the next step is to

 

  • Extend some words of loving kindness to myself. I have this memorized now, but I used to read it from a little recipe card, when I was first learning to do this:
    • I simply repeat the following:
    • May I be filled with lovingkindness
    • May I be held in loving kindness
    • May I feel connected and calm
    • May I accept myself just as I am
    • May I be happy
    • May I know the natural joy of being alive

 

And then I would just repeat those sentences in my mind and offer myself friendship and kindness.

 

This is powerful stuff my friends.

 

I often repeat the above phrases for a minute or two until I just feel so grounded and loving. It’s like my insides are filled with this glowing, loving energy that resonates with every cell of my body. It’s amazing, really.

 

I do want to say, to be clear, that this is not about pretending that everything is okay, when there are wrongs that need to be righted.

 

This isn’t about acting as if everything is nice and that everything bad that has happened is just fine – because for most of us, if we aren’t feeling lovingkindness, its BECAUSE things are not fine at all.

 

But I do this because I know that it is a way to show compassion for myself, and I do it out of respect for myself. It helps me recalibrate and reminds me of what I am capable of in terms of having a heart that is open, and so that is why I practice this regularly.

 

I like to think of it as an experiment, really. Like a chef, who takes the best ingredients, and creates the most amazing meal. I like to see what happens with the ingredients of self-compassion and self-respect, and when I do it I recognize the fundamental connection that exists between me and all living things, all the humans, versus feeling alone and disconnected.

 

I’m not pretending that I approve of everyone and everything.

 

No.

 

Because I don’t.

 

And that’s totally okay.

 

Did you know that it’s okay to admit that you don’t approve of everything and everyone?

 

This is big for me, to give myself permission to not approve, but to still hold space for loving kindness for all of it.

 

And so, when I’m angry, and I disconnect myself from the people or the situations I disapprove of, I begin to feel trapped. I can feel a bit helpless and lost in that.

 

Another word for trapped, is suffering.

 

But when I do this loving kindness practice, I pay attention to not just my own suffering, but someone else’s too, and then I feel connected to the human condition of all of us experiencing and trying to figure out what to do with pain.

  • After I can access loving kindness for myself,
  • I latter my way, and so this is step 2, I move onto opening my circle, and I bring to mind someone who is dear to me – so often the people who come up quickly are my husband, my children, my parents, and my grandmother comes up a lot.

 

I’ll sit and reflect on someone dear to me, even my grandma who has passed, I think of her in a beautiful place, free from pain, and I reflect on her basic goodness, and the particular qualities I loved about her. I feel a lot of appreciation well up in my heart for having her in my life, and then I offer her the same simple phrases:

 

  • May you be filled with lovingkindness
  • May you be held in lovingkindness
  • May you feel love now
  • May you accept yourself just as you are
  • May you be happy
  • May you know the natural joy of being alive

 

As you try this, as you do this, then you can move into step 3, and step 4 – which is to practice with people who are neutral, like maybe other drivers on the road, the grocery store clerk, the mailman, just neutral strangers, which can be really powerful for helping you feel more connected to the other humans who keep the world going around, but you don’t have a personal connection to.

 

And step 4, if it’s possible and it’s something you want to try, you can bring to mind someone who is difficult, someone whom you feel a lot of irritation toward, but this step is very last, after you’ve already been resonating in feeling loving kindness towards other humans.

 

Many spiritual traditions and teachings tell us to love those who hurt us, to love our enemies, and this can be such a confusing teaching.

 

I mean, how to really do that?

 

Here’s how I practice loving people who aren’t so easy for me to love.

 

W all have people in our lives who are more easy to love than others, right? But what do we do with the people who aren’t easy to love?

 

And so practicing loving kindness toward yourself, then towards a beloved person who is easy to love, then towards someone who you might see regularly, but don’t know well, someone neutral, that can prepare your heart to open to loving someone who might be difficult to love.

 

And so you experiment, and you test it and see if maybe your heart can open up to a little bit of sympathy and compassion for this person. Seeing if it’s possible to let go of feelings of resentment and dislike, and reminding yourself to see this person as a whole being. . . maybe who also feels pain and who also suffers.

 

You just experiment with extending words of loving kindness in your mind.

As you do this experiment, you might notice your awareness open up in all different directions. You might not. It might be difficult to access.

 

But keep practicing.

 

And then, I just like to end the practice by bringing loving kindness back to myself.

 

That’s it really.

 

Sometimes it takes a moment, other times, I get lost in it for some time, ten to fifteen minutes or so.

 

It’s powerful to resonate in the energy of loving kindness that you generate with your own mind, in this way.

 

This is how it’s possible to transmute the fuel of anger into something more useful.

 

The Dalai Lama said, and I’m going to paraphrase here, “If you have an enemy, and you obsess about this enemy, then your whole life can become that obsession, that identification. And you’re so limited. You can’t eat well, you can’t sleep well, you can’t do anything else.”

 

And then he said, “Why give your enemy that satisfaction, of ruining your life?” Indeed, why not triumph over your enemy by being happy?

 

And so, the movie, Cruella is a broken story – in a good way, because we see a talented human trying to make sense, trying to make meaning of wrongs that demand justice.

 

This is the stuff of life, though not as dramatic, perhaps.

 

As Cruella laid on her bed, upon finding out her true story, as she contemplated the stages of grief, and decided to add a sixth stage – revenge – to her grief, what if?

 

What if she could have sought personal redemption from the inside, versus going on a vigilante rampage on the outside?

 

It’s a fine line.

 

Cruella’s long-time childhood friend, Jasper, who loved her and worried about the dangerous path Cruella was choosing for herself, may have played a larger role in Cruella’s ability to stabilize from the revenge, than we realize.

 

The movie set us up for a sequel. I kind of hope they don’t do a sequel, because the movie leaves us in a tantalizing state of wondering – does Cruella feel satisfied and will now create a life full of amazing fashion and refuge for societies forgotten, orphaned children, etc.

?

That is my hope for Cruella, that the story leaves us with good as good, and with evil as evil, and with good winning, even though evil had its day in the sun.

 

Cruella is a nuanced character, as are we in real life, really.

 

We aren’t all good, and we aren’t all evil. But we all have both tendencies. And we act on those tendencies.

 

The question becomes,

 

What will win?

 

What will win at the end of the day?

 

Will you be the heroine of your own story?

 

Will there be healing that takes place in the brokenness?

 

I hope so.

 

And with that, I’m going to leave you with this delicious song dahling, about fear: fear only has the power we give it.

 

And so choose wisely.

 

Don’t let anger and outrage and fear rule at the end of the day. Yes, feel the fear, but then decide on purpose what you are really going to give power in your life to, and choose wisely.

 

Be the heroine of your own story.

 

Have a beautiful day.

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