Ever since I read an article by George Monbiot I’ve been thinking about myths, the stories we’ve told since the beginning of time. Monbiot writes “Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand. You cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one. It is not enough to challenge an old narrative, however outdated and discredited it may be. Change happens only when you replace one story with another. When we develop the right story, and learn how to tell it, it will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum.” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/09/george-monbiot-how-de-we-get-out-of-this-mess
In every culture, every community, every family, every generation we tell our stories. The form of telling has changed, from spoken to written, from books to video, to computer and internet. I was talking to my mother recently about our family history and she said, “Well, you tell a good story!” I realized in that moment that my stories of our family are different from my mother’s. The stories of what happened, when and most importantly why have changed as I’ve grown older but they remain a central part of me and who I identify as my ‘self’, as different from my mother and her generation. And I wondered what stories will my children and grandchildren tell about their past, my present, and issues such as what we did or didn’t do about climate change.
The stories we tell shape our beliefs and actions. Neoliberals on the left and Libertarians on the right have something in common, the belief that the human individual, if left to his or her own good nature, would create a just and free world. Authoritarians, both political and religious, have taken the opposite view that humans are basically weak or sinful and without a strong leader or a God, we behave badly. So what is the truth? Are humans basically good, or basically bad? Can we trust our motivation to act in time to address climate change or will we simply be forced to endure the consequences? I think the truth is we are neither one nor the other but capable of both, behaving in different ways as we mature into adulthood.
As a baby we absorb information but have no fixed identity of self, this is why babies are seen as innocent. As children we develop our identity, our ego, our moment of narcissistic reality “I am someone”, and we become able to act. As we develop adulthood we move beyond self-centered narcissism and begin to develop social consciousness, relating to others around us. How far we develop as adults varies. Some people never move beyond narcissism, clinging to the idea that they are uniquely special and acting only to benefit them selves. Some people move a little beyond, extending their ego identity as far as their tribe, giving their allegiance to a group identity, and distrusting other groups. Racial prejudice and bigotry are a norm for such groups of people, still acting to benefit only Us not Them. Very few people reach the state of maturity which goes beyond human identity seeing the complex connections between all life forms, learning to respect life beyond human form.
The story I believe to be true is that humans need personal contact to evolve. Living life through social media is stunting our growth as humans because of the absence of direct, immediate personal contact. We need the presence of a close and loving family, a small group of people that know us well, others that we trust. Families need a stable home, a place where we are nurtured, where we feel safe. Home is the place we come to rest, to take sustenance, to rejuvenate. Homes occupied by families need the continuity of community, the groups of families living near each other and sharing values, resources, a way of living and supporting each other. As the familiar group enlarges beyond a certain size, beyond the community in which we live, we lose direct personal connection with others. In a community, norms function better than laws because it is the people themselves that enforce socially accepted behaviors. In the larger society laws and government become necessary because individuals no longer act, groups act. Communities need stable connections to other communities, good ‘politics’ to govern our treatment of others.
We do not really know what life is like for others that live in another state, or another country, unless we visit them. We need travelers and teachers…people who are part of our group but have knowledge of others. Through them we come to know a larger family we call humanity. I think Monbiot is right “We have been induced by politicians, economists and journalists to accept a vicious ideology of extreme competition and individualism that pits us against each other, encourages us to fear and mistrust each other and weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living. We have lost our common purpose.” If dystopia, war and destruction are all we can imagine, then violence may be all we can expect.
The story I believe is that we are all part of this dance called life, each of us having our own way of seeing and being. Every living creature lives in this dance, dependent upon environmental stability to fulfill its main purpose of birth, growth, reproduction, and death. Humans are different from animals because we search for meaning in life. And although we may see life’s purpose as different from that of a plant, an insect, another mammal, at the core we all are part of the same striving to exist.
I think finding our way forward, is seeing the value of each other in community. We need the stodgy old English teacher that insists we learn the proper rules of writing. We need the conservative traditionalists that keep faith with the past, so that when we go off track we know how to find our way back. We need the scientist, explorer, radical innovator looking for new ideas because we won’t solve our problems with the same thinking that got us into this mess. We need the mystics, writers, poets, and artists to help us imagine a world we ourselves cannot see. And most important of all, we need to coexist with all of the life around us. We need to listen to each other’s stories, because someone else, even some other life form, may help us find a way into a future we have yet to imagine.
3 Replies to “A future we have yet to imagine”
It is interesting that I’ve become more “conservative” in relation to the impact of technology and consumer culture. And perhaps there are many people who feel this way but expressed in different ways, that sometimes I find hard to understand, such as a nostalgia for the culture of the 1950’s with its rigid social norms that enforced white Protestant Christian culture. In that respect I am not “conservative” at all!
But perhaps I might find a place of overlap with such a person in the desire to see community bonds strengthened rather than weakened by the economic and cultural depredations of consumer culture. And that might be enough to remember our commonalities and to speak civilly of each other.
Part of the problem is that you must indeed give up part a certain kind of “liberty” to bind yourself to community. And, as you point out, this requires a great deal of emotional development to do voluntarily, willfully, and steadfastly. And it goes very much against the grain of one myth of American-ness: that extreme form of American/Anglo-Saxon individualism. It doesn’t help that there are so few examples of living, nurturing communities even existent anymore!
I love this paragraph:
“The story I believe to be true is that humans need personal contact to evolve. Living life through social media is stunting our growth as humans because of the absence of direct, immediate personal contact. We need the presence of a close and loving family, a small group of people that know us well, others that we trust. Families need a stable home, a place where we are nurtured, where we feel safe. Home is the place we come to rest, to take sustenance, to rejuvenate. Homes occupied by families need the continuity of community, the groups of families living near each other and sharing values, resources, a way of living and supporting each other. As the familiar group enlarges beyond a certain size, beyond the community in which we live, we lose direct personal connection with others. In a community, norms function better than laws because it is the people themselves that enforce socially accepted behaviors. In the larger society laws and government become necessary because individuals no longer act, groups act. Communities need stable connections to other communities, good ‘politics’ to govern our treatment of others.”
It reminds me of a famous Confucian passage which describes just these kind of widening circles that must be tended to with care. Of course, Confucian concepts of what is right and good would not fit very well in our post-modern, multi-cultural world, but Confucian ideas about a humane social order built on common values rather than brute power or economic relations have always had a lot to offer.
Here’s the passage from the Great Learning
Things being investigated, knowledge became complete.
Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere.
Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified.
Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated.
Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated.
Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed.
Their States being rightly governed, the entire world was at peace.
Some things from the past I value, some I don’t. I’m not sure if the words traditional and conservative mean the same thing, but I tend to think of them as very similar when I’m thinking about preserving the past. I grew up in a small (pop. 1500) rural Minnesota community. Most of its citizens were white protestant Christians. I still admire the ethics of our culture which was mostly Scandinavian immigrants. There was a strong work ethic, thriftiness, neighborly spirit.
My family had many traditions we celebrated. We entertained large family gatherings for holidays; Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. My mother served many traditional Scandinavian dishes; my father had his own style of French Canadian cooking. Our community was very close knit. Almost everyone knew each other and people always greeted each other where ever we met.
I knew most of my high school graduating class because I had been with many of them since kindergarten. Children generally respected elders because most adults would report us to our parents if we behaved badly. Raising children was part of the entire community’s responsibility. If someone was injured or sick, neighbors helped out. When my niece was killed in a car accident, neighbors stopped by to drop off food, my high school teachers stopped me on the street and hugged me.
The bonds I formed during childhood didn’t end just because I moved away for college and didn’t move back. I still belonged. I was one of the community. I think few people who grow up in large cities have this experience of a close knit community.
I think community leaders are mostly conservative, people that value stability and traditions. Conservative and conservation have the same root word, conserve. I admire people who protect native forests or prairies, historic architecture, past cultures and languages. I see conservative as honoring the past and resisting change just for the sake of change.
It’s not that we were perfect or didn’t need to change. But we knew we belonged. We knew others and others knew us. That doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from change. Overtime the community I grew up in has changed. Not always for the better, but because it was necessary. Just because something is old, doesn’t mean I want it to stay the same. But I find that stability is very dependent on continuity. And small communities have a lot of continuity.
Oh, and the Confucius poem was wonderful. Order starts from the individual, well regulated, and works it’s way upwards. Strong honest people make strong honest families which make strong good communities, etc. Society is only as good as it’s weakest link.
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