The late Jesuit priest and psychologist Anthony De Mello once commented that the shortest distance between the human heart and truth is simply a good story.
There is something incredibly relevant about that statement. As the world shrinks, as the impact of globalization takes full effect, we are left with an ever greater realization that each of us, almost seven billion people, exist within a story connecting our heart to the truths that we inhabit. But what does that actually mean? What is a “story,” when used as I’ve just used it? Some might wonder if I’m implying that we each are living in fantasy, pseudo-realities. And if that is the case, if every member of the human family exists within a narrative of some sort, then aren’t all such stories arbitrary and therefore equal?
What Do I Mean by “Story?”
First, when I say the word story–what I mean is a broad or sweeping set of guiding generalities that we base many of our actions on. This often takes the form of literal narratives. In ancient cultures they understood their origins through rich and vibrant accounts focusing on the relationships of mythic beings and feats of power or might. Today we too tell such tales. Some have described the Theory of evolution as such. Or the ideal of cultural progress. Or consumption. Or currently global warming. These are vast and complex descriptions that somehow give meanings to our every day actions and direct us in our choices.
Recently my mother told me how she was changing dietary habits, trending towards local, seasonal, and organic based upon a riveting set of sermons she listened to by an evangelical Christian pastor. Apparently the minister traced the role of food and diet all the way through the Bible, laying a strong case for modern day healthy living. This is a great example of how a narrative that she is completely absorbed by is capable of dictating how she interacts with the every day world. And we all do this, whether we know it or not. Consider that some one else might listen to the clergyman and not be inspired to change their eating at all. But the moment they visit the doctor and view their charts, they find all the impetus they need to make a shift. Why? Because they too are living in a story. It may not be a 2000 year old conglomeration of poetry, prose, and prophecy–no, but it is a distinctly post-Enlightenment one…a story that values science, progress, and professionalization as the impacting realities to be dealt with. My point is really very simple, whether pre or post modern, each of us exists and governs our lives according to some sort of script. Our lives demand that we summon things such as ancient texts, communities, traditions, utilitarianism, or authority to give meaning and direction.
Some are more equal than others….
This brings me to my second point, and a question that weighs heavily on many peoples mind. If we acknowledge that each member of the human family is governed by a set of stories that gives meaning to their actions, in other words–they are almost arbitrary, does that mean that all such stories are equal?
I would like to reassure by saying–no…I don’t believe all stories are equal. In fact–I would say that there are some stories that are down right useless and even harmful. Again, I’m reminded of a family connection. I have a two year old son named Judah. When he was a little over a year old I walked into the kitchen to discover him wearing his cereal bowl as a hat. Under different circumstances this might have been cute. But as the milk and Cheerios slid down his face and onto the floor, it didn’t seem so adorable–to either of us. Judah was screaming. I was miffed. What had gone wrong? Well, nothing actually. Judah was simply making an interpretive choice. In his reality the bowl could double as a hat. And why not? While this isn’t an air tight case I’m trying to build here, I would say this: because, it just didn’t work. In the context–bowl filled with milk and cereal, in the community–Judah, myself, and the floor, this was a poor interpretive choice.
I’m using that as a simple illustration to communicate the reality that while interpretations or stories or the way we view the world may be arbitrary or even equally valid–they are hardly equal. In fact there are rather complex ways we can evaluate the validity of such a story. Does the present context validate what is being said or acted on? Does the present community confirm the reality being expressed? And finally, perhaps most intangibly, I would like to hearken back to Aristotle–is it good? Does it serve the Common Good? It was expressed slightly differently by the 1st century apostle Paul when he said, “whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is lovely–on these things dwell.”
A New Story for a New World
I have come to believe, along with many others, that our culture is in desperate need of a new story–a new set of generalizing touch points to draw meaning into our lives and evaluate our present/future. Like Judah, my son, there is a need to realign our interpretations with our present context and more immediate global community. The “old stories” that much of current cultural norms are based off of, feel inadequate in explaining the complexity of the hyper-shift that is being experienced in social emergence. Indeed, how could the old narratives of tribalism, magic, or even “raw objective data” be expected to deal with such endemic changes? The worlds that birthed such viewpoints are now long dead. It is time that we put on new attire that matches our conditions and our realities–just as our ancestor’s did for theirs.
What will the flavor of this new story be?
First, it will–it must–be one that embraces a holistic or integrative perspective. We can no longer afford hyper compartmentalization. As the philosopher Sartre once said, “Our morality cannot simply go on holiday.” The new story will not separate body from soul, profit from price, consumption from cost, science from religion, adama from adam (earth from human) or the countless other arbitrary distances that the post-enlightenment have applied.
Second, the new story will embrace a sense of wonderment and play. The old god of frontal lobe cognition must eventually bow before the Trickster and acknowledge the need for mystery. This doesn’t mean blind faith–but rather hopeful acknowledgement of complexity of the universe and even of ourselves. Such a position expands the heart into the traditional terrain of the mind and allows for inquisitive investigation issuing into imaginative experiment.
Third, the new story must begin to view the transcendent as immanently available to us in the form of every living being. Loving God has never looked so much like loving your neighbor…
Finally, the new story must value the human capacity for choice and decision while acknowledging that such choices are often nested in limiting or narrowing eco-systems. In other words we are responsible for our actions…but there are also elements outside of our immediate control. What is important is our intentioned action towards betterment. Knowing that we may fail, knowing that we probably will not accomplish all that there is to do, we press on towards the goal.
In the next few weeks I, along with Frank Spencer, Mike Morrell, and Kevin Beck will be discussing what a new story for a new world might look like. I value your comments. I’d like to invite you to take the journey with us and contribute your own vision to the unfolding narrative. Let me know if you post on this topic. Let’s get this thing started.