Stop the steal of our story
Remember four-year-olds and how fantastic their story-making capacities are? “Where were you?” asks the mama. “I said you could be in the backyard, but when I called you didn’t come.”
“I almost comed, but then a bear came out of the woods and said, ‘get on my back and I’ll give you a ride to your mama.’ So I got on him’s back, and then he didn’t ride me to you. The bear said, ‘I has a ice cream machine in my cave and we can have chocolate-vanilla swirls and then I’ll take you to your mama.’” A look of huge satisfaction crosses the face of the child.
“Honey, you are making that up.”
“No it really happened mama, smell my breaths.”
So, indulging him, mama smells his breath—chocolate.
So what is reality?
That is the question being asked these days in a much more serious realm. In America, the storylines required to hold people to a shared concept of reality have been shattered. Deliberately. When a people can no longer agree on basic perceptions of who we are and what is occurring around us, we become vulnerable to manipulation at just the time we most need shared perceptions. A huge part of the problem is that technology has advanced its capacities to manipulate what we see and hear way beyond our capacities to discern truth, lies, or reality in a split second electronic flash.
Chocolate or vanilla?
In this environment, it’s amusing to watch the meme of Senator Bernie Sanders, crouched in his jacket and mittens in the chilly wind of the Inauguration, get superimposed on a thousand scenes, because we know it is false. We offer it as entertainment not reality, and we did it “ourselves”—clever photoshopping, the collective imagination at play.
A bear with mittens?
However, it is not amusing to watch our collective imagination get played! When parts of the multi-media industry abdicate responsibility for maintaining defined “reality,” the resulting confusion fissures people into wildly divergent storylines. The outfall of anguish and anger is tearing up the lives of ordinary families, former friends and coworkers, religious congregations, and the aisles of Congress. This is a perilous moment in which our drive for meaning makes us vulnerable to technologies and influences that have outpaced our capacities for discernment. In this story stew, the loss of a cohesive national narrative is profoundly dangerous—as January 6, and whatever comes next, makes clear.
Beyond geography and economy, a nation state is a complex narrative of identity about who we are and how our country behaves within a world of nations. Stories shape national identity and form the foundation of our actions, from the level of policy to personal behavior toward one another.
A national story requires consistent revision as the nation and its people mature. Revision in national narrative means that citizens are educated toward increased understanding of complexity and encouraged to include diverse, previously excluded experiences in how we name ourselves. We are called to revise our societal story to address issues of “white privilege,” “black lives matter,” and “land acknowledgement.”
Revision always generates blowback from folks and influences who don’t want the story to change: but blowback does not mean rampant lying is allowed. Except, it has been allowed. America’s story in the hands of Fox News, QAnon, a former president, and dark-web media have weaponized humanity’s most creative tool by provoking story’s capacity to disintegrate reality as well as weave a cohesive agreement of the world around us.
Story is a neurological necessity. Story is the linguistic vehicle the mind uses to translate information and integrate experience into meaning-making. We are wired to make meaning; we are wired for story. Words are how we think, but story is how we link. And once we have linked ourselves to a story-line and given credence to ideas embedded in that story, it is hard to pull back and open our minds again. Possible, but difficult. We become entrenched. We filter reality through the story lens we are devoted to in attempts to make more and more meaning.
There really was a bear. This fuzz is not moss it’s fur! He was a green bear. He promised me ice cream.
Words lead to actions. A cohesive society is based on a collective social agreement that no matter how much we struggle and disagree, some boundaries will not be crossed: we will not lead, nor allow ourselves to be led, astray of commonsense reality. That social contract is currently broken. In the zero-gravity environment of ‘down-the-rabbit-hole’ clicking and algorithm determined suggested links, people have come to believe that evidence is just a chosen story-line and that they are under no obligation to give it credence unless they want to. So, for example, the flat earth theory is just as credible as round earth science; both should be taught in school and children allowed to decide what they want to believe.
The green bear is real because I say he is.
In the political realm, the danger of Donald Trump is that he was granted four years of tweeting whatever served his will of the moment. He broke the contract of adherence to commonsense reality and legitimized falsehoods at a grand scale, culminating in over 30,000 “false or misleading claims.” The danger in the Republican party is that they acquiesced to the erosion of reality and some have joined the storyline to retain power and future votes. The danger in the Democratic party is that the call for unity needs to recognize what cannot be unified and to reckon with the scale of this disaster. The danger for us is that we allowed the power of story to be stolen from our mouths and minds and we need it back.
Story is oral tradition. Story is the voice of the people. In this long winter, we must speak out from our porches and Zoom rooms to re-personalize and repopulate the story-field and call each other home. By voice, email, tweet, and social media we can take charge of what storylines we perpetuate. We can raise up what is good, true, meaningful and call out what is evil, false, denigrating.
One responsibility of citizenship is to hold the story-field accountable. If we want this country back, we need to get the story back. Though the pandemic necessarily separates us, it does not necessarily divide us. We the people can hold the outer rim of cohesiveness that allows us to encompass difference, to work for justice, and to reweave our belonging to one another. It’s time for the “mama” voice to re-establish basic reality.
The bear is brown. The world is round.
If story can transport people into such dark corners of belief: then story can retrieve people from these places. Not all people, but enough of us to carry on with the business the world calls us to at this crucial time.
May this be the story that guides us, the story that inspires us, and the story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history. We met the moment. Democracy and hope, truth and justice did not die on our watch but thrived, that America secured liberty at home and stood once again is a beacon to the world. President Joseph R. Biden, January 20, 2021
Oh my. Thank you so much for this. I have long believed we were slipping into a “wikipedia world” where story and history can be changed without challenge. I worry that we’ve handed off the narrative of our times to the loudest voice and most clever “memes”. I’m finding new and deepened appreciation for both my family’s encyclopedia set and for the storytellers. The voice of truth still rises above all others if we listen carefully and contribute our own voices to that chorus.
Bonnie Rae, there is beauty in the collage of words as well as images, and we need to remain somehow the ones who cut and paste and make the metaphors. Be well and thanks for reading.
Thank you! This is so perceptively and cogently explained. I would add that we all have varying degrees of vulnerability, sensitivity, and tolerance to and for this kind of dissonance from authority figures and platforms. I have felt so incredulous, tipsy and disillusioned in recent days as people I care about went down the rabbit hole. I pledge to keep doing my part to “hold the outer rim of cohesiveness.”
So freaking good. Well done, my friend. “Words are how we think, but story is how we link.” And when we link to one story, we refuse to even consider anything that contradicts it. Mothers who say bears are not green are not to be trusted, or listened to. Next thing you know they’ll be telling you spinach is good for you.
I thought of Adrian while writing this…enjoy your woods today. We will have to have a talk about spinach.
Very well said, Christina! May we take back our story.
“The bear is brown. The world is round.” Thank you for this lovely piece on the power of story and how a culture can fall down the rabbit hole of false narratives. Christina, you have such a gift for telling the story and helping us see the way forward. Thank you, my friend.
Dear Sandi, we who carry bodies of work around story also carry a responsibility to call out the shadow side of story’s power. I love what you are doing with The Story you Need to Tell! Carry on, sister.
Thank you so much for this.
(Would you like to collaborate on a workshop? “Can Story Call Us to Civility”?)
This was a great way to start my day!
I needed this today! Jane just said our Racial Equity Zoom call last Friday was more relaxed because we don’t have to have tRump in our lives. So true! His story and ours are not the same. Thank the goddess!
Oh Christina I was waiting for this! It is so very needed. Who would ever have thought social media could wreck such havoc! Finding the truth in the story and and the courage to keep telling it is our task. We watch with shock and fear here in Canada what is happening to our treasured neighbour and remain ever vigilant that it can and may happen here. The election of Biden has given us fresh hope as well as the belief that we know the truth of our neighbours and that you will overcome this moment. We love you and ache for you.
Thank you for your care of your neighboring country. Living where I can nearly wave at you, but not visit you or you visit us is a hard part of the pandemic… but we continue to care across the great invisible line. Blessings to your day. CB
Nicely written yet CNN has lied as well as our democrat and republican political representatives..
We need to seek the truth and a democracy with both views not just one after all that’s what made the constitutions do our freedoms worth fighting for.
Thank you for reading this, Susie, with your faithful heart. The lens of political bias is everywhere in the media, and it is an ongoing job of us citizens to keep finding the middle ground. I love that we can be in this conversation together.
Thank you Christina for your wisdom and hope that is woven in your message today. Like Gretchen I am borrowing your quote “Words are how we think and but story is how we link”. Also thank you for the picture from your dining room table looking out to the ocean. So many memories from the place you call home live in my heart.
Love to you, Sharon. It’s strange to wonder if we will ever see one another again, and yet our work in the world has brought us through each other’s lives in beautiful ways. Be well.
Your writings arrived in my mind, heart and computer like a huge support this morning, for our collective awakening. Thank you for the tremendous skill you have with words, to articulate what is calling for our attention, all of us, at this critical time. I”m thinking also about the quest ceremony which I’m in deep preparation for now, with two groups, and the importance of truly knowing our lives at this time, so we can fully embrace our own true stories as a marking of being the true carriers…. keep it coming, dear Christina, we need your lifetime of being able to give voice to the deepest longings of our hearts. May all be well in your world, love, Anne
Thank you, Anne. All is well in my world. My heart breaks for the suffering we are in individually and collectively, and perhaps it is only nature that does not “lie” but lays out the path forward for us. Blessings on your guidance and leadership with so much heart.
Wow, Christina—this is extraordinary and so well written and thought-out. Send this to your papers…and the Port Townsend Leader and Peninsula Daily News!
I tried to get this published more widely, and I hope people will share it as so moved. High praise from you, powerful writing sister. Thank you.
“If story can transport people into such dark corners of belief: then story can retrieve people from these places. Not all people, but enough of us to carry on with the business the world calls us to at this crucial time.”
Thank you for these words, Christina. I live in a place where many are deep into the “dark corners of belief.” They have been duped, but they hold fast to the narrative they have been fed. Your words motivate me to step up my efforts to feed them a truthful narrative. Some are retrievable.
Thank you for this, Dorothy. It is not fact but story that can coax open our hearts and minds I think. Cheering you/us on.
These words came at just the right time for me, Christina. The excitement of January 20th has given way to the struggle for truth and honesty and care for all. The long haul was starting to feel heavy once again. Thanks for your call to action and the direction to that action! Your words have given me the means to keep hoping and acting. xxx
Yes, it is a long haul and we are in it with our lives and for our lives and that is okay. One of the things that helps me keep calm in the storm that is our times is Heather Cox Richardson’s almost daily newsletter: Letter from an American. A thoughtful synthesis, an historical perspective, and occasionally a beautiful nature photo and a wish for us all to just breathe. Love to you and Robert
Thank you Christina. Well thought, well said. I will use this in my story.
Thank you, Christina. You have put into words the concerns of my heart. I am a retired teacher and a storyteller at heart. When I was growing up we watched the evening news on television. There were three networks and all three were basically reporting the same news. You are spot on when you say that the technology’s rapid advancement has made alternative story on social media platforms far outpace our ability to discern fact from fiction. It is so reckless and should be somehow called into account. Every good advancement has the ability to be used for evil purposes and we are seeing it played out in this arena. As an individual, I have felt so helpless in the face of all this as I watch friends and former colleagues go “down the rabbit hole.” I have a small blog about farm life and chickens. I have six grandchildren and am still a storyteller. I will garner my courage and keep speaking the truth: the bear is brown. The earth is round. And I will keep telling the story of we the people because it just might save us.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me Susan. I loved going out to your blog and making acquaintance through your writings as well. WE all keep on keeping on. The earth is round–so are hugs.
I am glad to see that you’re okay with sharing this, Christina. I have posted it to FaceBook and hope friends will pass it on. Your beautiful language always makes your wisdom vivid, and many people should have a chance to read this essay. Thank you for helping us to return to the “mama” voice of common sense reality.
Carry on mama bear!
Thank you for the good reads.
Thank you so much for this Christina. Beautiful and wise. An inspiration to me, in everything I write and broadcast, to call for a return to the story this nation used to believe in and hold much better than we do now.
Technical question: How did you avoid Disqus in your Comments feature?