Storytelling, culture and revolution

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A culture is a people enacting a story, says Ishmael, the captive gorilla, in Daniel Quinn’s novel.

A story might simply be a story if it stands by itself – in a vacuum. Yet, a story rooted in our life experiences is not just a story. It is much more. In it we find revealed the particular relationship that we, the storytellers, have with our environment. Individual stories are part of the fabric that is our worldview. Stories, whether fictitious or true, spring forth from our values, believes, perceptions, dreams, imaginations or wishes, all of which are bound to our life experiences, which in turn are fundamentally shaped by our particular environment. The stories, then, that we tell ourselves are bound up in a feedback system whereby our lives find expression in stories which are in turn enacted by us. If, as Ishmael tells us, we believe that the world was made for man (i.e. man as the climax of the whole cosmic drama of creation) and that we are at odds with nature’s distasteful, dehumanizing elements (i.e. moving beyond the wretchedness of the animal condition), then the stories that we will write and enact are stories of conquest, progress, and an alienation from nature. Is it any wonder that when such stories are repeated over and over again and take root in our daily lives, to be enacted, perpetuated and strengthened, that it becomes something of a conventional wisdom, a fundamental truth, that our actions are right/good, not to be questioned but adhered to under all circumstances? For, is there any other way? and if there is, if it does not fit into our storyline, should it be discarded as  extreme/irrational/alien/questionable? Thomas Hartmann offers a succinct point, namely that the idea of cultural change is often unpalatable because any sort of real, individual, personal change in beliefs and behaviors is so difficult as to be one of the rarest events we ever experience in our own lives or witness among those we know. It’s easy to send $10 off to the Sierra Club; it’s infinitely more difficult to reconsider beliefs and behaviors held since childhood and then change your way of life to one based on that new understanding, new viewpoint, or new story.

Everything points to the conclusion that our culture and the stories that we tell ourselves are here to stay – they sustain a paradigm whose boundaries we cannot, or will not breach. A simple example from economics to bring this point across: economic growth! Whether we need or even wish the goods that are produced, John Kenneth Galbraith writes in “The Affluent Society” their assured production means assured income for those who produce them. This serves the goal of economic security. To falter on production, even though that production serves the most unimportant of requirements, is to expose individuals somewhere to loss of employment and income. This cannot be allowed. Nothing counts as heavily against a government as allowing unnecessary unemployment. The remedy, of course, is increased production – economic growth! It has become common wisdom, a dogma, canon, creed, tenet, doctrine, that economic growth –  perpetual growth – , is a fundamental requirement of our wellbeing and happiness. As such, it overrides all other requirements and escapes the grasp of the disillusioned critic. Nowhere can we go, to escape its reach. Media, politicians, employers, educators, friends, family…they all write, follow and perpetuate the story of the ‘needed economic growth’ to such an extent that it becomes almost impossible to imagine an alternative. If we witness a people enacting a story that delegates economic growth to the dustbin of discarded ideas, we muse that something must be wrong with them, for only one story, our story, is the true and correct story and all others must therefore be the results of a misguided mind. What must be done, in the name of the common good, is first suggested and then, if need be, forced assimilation.

This may all be well and good – not really – but what is to be done, however, if we realize that the story that we are enacting is a story that casts mankind as the enemy of the world? and that, as Daniel Quinn puts it, inevitably leads to a “bleeding to death at our feet” of nature, our foe? What if our dominating story is one where, as Ishmael explains, the world was given to man to turn into a paradise, but he’s always screwed it up, because he’s fundamentally flawed. He might be able to do something about this if he knew how he ought to live, but he doesn’t and he never will, because no knowledge about that is obtainable. So, however hard man might labor to turn the world into a paradise, he’s probably just going to go on screwing it up. With nothing but this wretched story to enact, the gorilla tells us, it’s no wonder so many of you spend your lives stoned on drugs or booze or television. It’s no wonder so many of you go mad or become suicidal. As we come to understand the consequences of this one story, at what point must we ask ourselves if it then not becomes imperative that we attempt a revolution in thought and storytelling – as the price of our current iteration is simply too great to bare.

What such a revolution might look like can be gleamed from the following two iterations. David Korten asks us to imagine two different stories: The Sacred Money Story and The Sacred Earth Story

The Sacred Money Story:
Time is money. Money is wealth. Those who make money are society’s wealth creators. Poverty is a sign of personal failure. Consumption is the path to happiness. Individualistic greed and competition are human virtues that the invisible hand of the free market directs to ends that create opportunity and prosperity for all. Those who would deprive society’s wealth creators of the fruits of their labor engage in envy—a mortal sin. Maximizing financial gain is a moral
and legal duty of business—indeed of each individual. Earth is a rock in space useful as source of free resources and a convenient waste dump.

The Sacred Earth Story:
Time is life. Life is the most precious of the many forms of wealth. As living beings, we survive and prosper only as contributing members of a living Earth Community evolving toward ever-greater beauty, complexity, self-awareness, and possibility. Making time for life—to experience and serve—is the path to happiness and well-being. Equality, community, and connection to nature are essential foundations of human health and happiness. It is our human nature to
care and to share. Earth is our sacred mother. As she loves and nurtures us, we must love and care for her. The institutions of business, government, and civil society exist for only one purpose—to serve as vehicles through which we cultivate and express our true nature and create our means of living in service to the Earth Community to which we all belong.

Many other authors have written on the interaction of story, culture and our way of being in this world and have subsequently argued for a change in theme. Here are but a few…

Joseph Campbell, in “The Power of Myth” wrote that the myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn’t, you’ve got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you. And yet, he remarks, our time demands a myth that will identify the individual not [just] with his local group but with the planet.

Thomas Hartmann writes that we ought to listen to the message from ancient cultures: a call to return to ways in which humans participated in the web of life on the earth; see ourselves and all things as sacred and interpenetrated; and listen to the voice of all life, and feel the heartbeat of Mother Earth and discard the ‘something will save us thinking’ that whispers in our ears daily, Something or someone will save us. Just continue your life as it was, and keep on consuming, because you couldn’t possibly save the world, but somebody else will.

Daniel Quinn writes that our lifestyle is evolutionarily unstable–and is therefore in the process of eliminating itself in the perfectly ordinary way. Even though we might realize what we are doing to ourselves and our environment, on which we depend absolutely, we too often fail to act. We quibble amongst ourselves over inconsequential matters and ‘solutions’ while missing the big picture need for a fundamental rethinking of society. He offers us the following story:

The ship was sinking—and sinking fast. The captain told the passengers and crew, “We’ve got to get the lifeboats in the water right away.”
But the crew said, “First we have to end capitalist oppression of the working class. Then we’ll take care of the lifeboats.”

Then the women said, “First we want equal pay for equal work. The lifeboats can wait.”

The racial minorities said, “First we need to end racial discrimination. Then seating in the lifeboats will be allotted fairly.”

The captain said, “These are all important issues, but they won’t matter a damn if we don’t survive. We’ve got to lower the lifeboats right away!”

But the religionists said, “First we need to bring prayer back into the classroom. This is more important than lifeboats.”

Then the pro-life contingent said, “First we must outlaw abortion. Fetuses have just as much right to be in those lifeboats as anyone else.”

The right-to-choose contingent said, “First acknowledge our right to abortion, then we’ll help with the lifeboats.”

The socialists said, “First we must redistribute the wealth. Once that’s done everyone will work equally hard at lowering the lifeboats.”

The animal-rights activists said, “First we must end the use of animals in medical experiments. We can’t let this be subordinated to lowering the lifeboats.”

Finally the ship sank, and because none of the lifeboats had been lowered, everyone drowned.

The last thought of more than one of them was, “I never dreamed that solving humanity’s problems would take so long—or that the ship would sink so SUDDENLY.”

David Korten too, writes about the need for a new story – a sacred story for our time. He quotes Thomas Berry, who wrote in “The Dream of the Earth” that the deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation. Korten claims that we live at such a moment for humanity’s current behavior threatens Earth’s capacity to support life and relegates more than a billion people to lives of destitution. This self-destruc­tive behavior and our seeming inability to change have deep roots in the stories by which we understand the nature and meaning of our existence. The challenge before us is to create a new civilization based on a cosmology—a story of the origin, nature, and purpose of creation—that reflects the fullness of our current human knowledge; a story to guide us to mature relationships with one another and a living Earth.

Finally, I am reminded of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” where the narrator explains that, as a young boy, he once drew a picture of a boa constrictor with an elephant digesting in its stomach; however, every adult who saw the picture would mistakenly interpret it as a drawing of a hat. Whenever the narrator would try to correct this confusion, he was ultimately advised to set aside drawing and take up a more practical or mature hobby.

It is the same with the stories that we weave – the new sacred stories for our time. Few will recognize them for what they are, being too caught up in the status quo, and they will claim that we set aside the dreaming and scheming and face reality; enact a story that is practical. Tempting, very tempting…and yet, perhaps, if we dig deep enough and realize that life is fleeting and precious, we might find the courage to resist the lure of comfort and step forward to enact a new story… remembering that each and every story begins with the first sentence, word and idea….

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