Writers know that conflict is the engine that drives the story. When I was teaching, I emphasized that a story doesn't really begin until there is some conflict, whether it is between the protagonist and another character, between the protagonist and nature, or within the protagonist. Examples: I want or need something and someone else is preventing me from getting it. I want or need something, but circumstances that appear to be beyond my control are preventing me from getting it. I want or need two things, but if I choose one, I have to give up the other.
While these are great places for starting to write a story, they are also fertile ground for depression, particularly if you make certain assumptions about conflicts. One of those assumptionsis that a concflict is necessarily a win/lose situation.
TRUE STORY: An elderly man lived in a rented apartment, the lower level of which consisted of a kitchen, living area, and a bathroom/utility room which contained a water heater. One day the water heater sprung a leak, flooding the lower floor. The landlord had the water damage reapired, the heater replaced, and the carpet in the living area professionally shampooed. The elderly man was not satisfied. He claimed that the carpet was moldy--so moldy, in fact that he asserted he could smell the mold as he was coming up the driveway to the building! He demanded the landlord install new carpet. As the landlord and several other people smelled no mold, his demand was refused. Upset, the elderly man complained to his adult daughter, who came to his residence. She couldn't smell any mold, either, but she realized her father wasn't going to let the matter drop, so she tried to fix the problem. She told her father, "Pick out the carpet you want, have it installed, and I'll pay for it."
"Because then the landlord wins. He gets new carpet in his building."
The elderly man wasn't able to see his daughter's offer as a win/win situation. He figured that if he got what he wanted (a win), somebody else had to lose. He could have had a new carpet, since his daughter was happy to pay for it, but he was unwilling to accept the fact that the landlord wouldn't lose anything. In his mind, that just wasn't right.
Because of his limited thinking, the elderly man ended up losing. Here's the important question: What did he lose?
If what he really wanted was a new carpet, his daughter was willing to give it to him. But he couldn't be happy unless the landlord lost the arguement. When that failed to happen, the elderly man was angry and complained about his landlord to anyone he could get to listen.
Chronic anger is often a component of depression, and this man had plenty of grievances. According to him, his life was full of stories that began, "if only..." and angry tales of how he'd been treated unfairly. Not surprisingly, he had no friends and was alienated from most of his family. The tragedy is that he never understood that his unhappiness stemmed from failing to recognize that other people had the right to say, "No."
I once read a true case in which a man was physically unable to tap a screw with a hammer to make an indentation in a piece of wood prior to drilling the screw in. Even though he logically knew this was an acceptable process, he just couldn't do it, so he went to a therapist to find out why.
In therapy, he remembered an incident in his childhood when his enraged father screamed at him, "Never hit a screw with a hammer!" His therapist explained that words that are spoken in a highly emotional situation imprint more deeply in the mind of the listener than do words spoken in ordinary circumstances. In this man's case, his father's words imprinted so deeply that the man could not make his body perform a simple action.
Imagine the effect of a parent saying to a child, "Why can't you be more like your brother?" or "You'll never amount to anything!" or even worse, "I wish you were never born!" Yet, every day some children hear such words from an angry parent. It isn't surprising when those children become depressed.
It doesn't even take hurtful or angry words to affect a child's thinking. Sometimes just the content of the words becomes locked into the child's view of the world. I discovered this when trying to help my children with their homework (usually math problems). I'd often hear the protest, "But that isn't the way the teacher does it!" I realized that my children were assuming that there was only one way to get to the right answer. I had to explain that I had learned a different way to solve the problem and get the same answer. I explained my way, and they explained the way the teacher had taught them, and both our worlds were enlarged.
Children take words literally. Imagine a parent saying, "Let me show you the right way to tie your shoes." What the child hears is that there is only one way to do something. Most children will eventually realize that other people perform the same task in other ways, but some children will be locked into the belief that there is only one right way to do things and that attitude prevents them from learning or even seeing alternatives.
Do you ever find yourself uncomfortably locked into certain behaviors? Do you really believe things must be done a certain way, even if you know there are different or even simpler ways to accomplish the same thing?
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.