Depending on your point of view, we are either sinking or swimming in a sea of stories. People on first dates usually offer up a background narrative about themselves. Every Community Partners project leader can tell an origin story that fueled their activist impulse to start and sustain a social enterprise. The owners of virtually every one of the billions of websites harbored in the fragmented cyberscape of the worldwide web proclaim themselves gateways to some cemented truth – be it fact-based, fictional or some blend of both. Figuring out what’s credible and what’s crap demands a kind of discernment that to this day challenges our species.
Think about it. For eons we have grouped for safety, security and comfort in tight tribes of like minds and, often, similar looks. In close quarters, we help one another recall our shared chronicle and the pacts we’ve reached about what’s real, what’s not, who’s good, who’s not, what’s right and what’s wrong. In tiny, isolated, homogenous groups, deviation from the settled line risks rejection or worse.
The rise of towns and cities made managing our stories more complex. We’ve had to grow more tolerant of differences as our tribes have clustered in increasingly complex arrangements requiring familiarity and regular interaction. Most of the time, we’ve hammered out some basic rules to protect commerce, keep the peace and maintain a semblance of order in social interactions. The rush of human settlement has ebbed and flowed with spasms of conflict and long spells of compromise.
Storytellers have helped us sort through what we don’t understand well about ourselves and one another. They’ve also stirred us to actions both productive and not. Naturally curious and gullible creatures, we have a penchant for appreciating, even if just for a while, anyone capable of spinning a good yarn. In medieval times, stories traveled on the lips of itinerant wanderers, village to village. Tales of exotic lands. Myths of spiritual redeemers. Rumors of impending assault. Fables embedded with moral guidance. Irresistible accounts of faraway treasures ripe for the plucking. Conjurings of a better life for the luckiest, and, if not, an afterlife in Paradise for consolation. As reading literacy grew, books and newspapers took over, giving us new common ground for understanding the larger world and our place in it.
That’s the thing about a story. It helps us try on for size a version of ourselves to see what fits – helping to make sense of our own past and present, or how to imagine the future. For the longest time, in America and elsewhere, democracy represented an aspirational story of universally shared prosperity, justice and equality for all. Growing louder today is an argument that the disjunction in our current politics prefigures an epochal shift in our culture away from such preposterously grand and unreachable ideals. The as-yet unauthored next chapter of the American story, the saga of democracy, is a question: Toward what will we shift?
All of us are susceptible, in the most primitive parts of our brain, to the story better told, to the appeal of the engaging bard who’s figured out what we want, need or fear the most, and who hands us a picture of hope or solace, riches or renewal, revenge or repair. The Presidential election season approaches and the race to seize what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt dubbed “the righteous mind” – not particularly the “rational” mind – of the voting public with story, with spite, with vision, and vilification is upon us. How well each of us engages in sharing authorship of the nation’s better story begins afresh now.
"Cross Media Cafe Storytelling" by Media Perspectives (CC BY 2.0)