Stories are a Threatened Species
There are many threatened species in our world. They’re threatened by our stories. The future of our stories is also under threat. Do we want to save the story of the human species?
Our future is in our stories
Last week I was at a workshop on local and global participation. One of the speakers wanted us to take away the message that “humans aren’t good at thinking about the future”. She reinforced this with images of environmental destruction.
I felt uneasy about this statement. Why? Because it doesn’t ring true to me.
It’s difficult to think about the future. It’s also very challenging when we’re immersed in stories of impending doom from climate change, peak oil, water scarcity, drought, famine and war.
For many of us, the future doesn’t seem like a place that we really want to be.
So we don’t like to think about it.
But we need to remember that the future is written in our stories. Our future will be shaped by how we imagine it, how we talk about it, and what we say it will be.
Stories are part of our life support system
Many of us are aware of the damage that we humans are doing to our planet. We differ in the stories that we tell, and the reasons we give, for this damage.
A dozen years ago I began working on social/environmental projects because a powerful story was at work in my mind. I’d picked this story up from other people and mixed it with my own experiences.
This is the story that framed my view of the world:
Our world is in crisis. We’re heading for collapse. Our ecosystems—the life support systems of our planet—are rapidly degrading. We’re threatening the conditions for our own existence. The poorest people suffer from this damage first. This is a huge injustice. It’s happening because of rampant individualism, consumerism and an economic model that often counts damage as progress. The world has gone crazy. We’ve lost sight of what’s important.
Sound familiar? This is a storyline that we hear in many global and environmental narratives. It’s a story that challenges an old myth about progress.
I’m curious: how do you feel when you hear this story? Does it confirm your own story? Does it fire you up because you have a different view? Do you feel sad, angry or uplifted?
We need to look at “The Why” within our stories
Hidden within the story above was something more subtle. It was the deeper “why” of the story:
Humans are doing this damage because we’re selfish. We’re only looking out for our own narrow interests—which may stretch to the interests of our family / business / nation. People don’t care.
This belief that people don’t care was a weed in the core of my story. It’s also a common storyline in society. You know the one: it’s a myth about “survival of the fittest”.
This part of the story had become so ingrained in me that everything I experienced became shaped by this story. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy—but it didn’t help me to feel fulfilled.
As my career continued I worked harder and harder to “be the change” and “make things better”, because I told myself that I do care. But I was burdened by the belief that other people don’t care. I started to become cynical.
Then I grew depressed.
I realised that this wasn’t helping me in my work. What did I do? I added some hope to my stories.
This is a well-tested method. If you read many environmental books, or watch presentations and see films about climate change, the narrative often goes like this:
In other words: there’s growing evidence of damage. The picture ain’t pretty. Actually it’s worse than you think. Much worse. It’s really rather grim. But wait! It’s OK. Everything will be alright. Look at all the things we can do. We can still turn this around. We just need to act. Starting with you.
The weakness of this storyline is that it focuses so much attention on what is wrong with the world that the hope doesn’t feel compelling.
Sometimes it even feels manipulative. It feels like the storyteller knows that they need to end on a high note to get action. But they don’t really have faith in what they are saying.
Today I realised that I’ve lost hope
Hope is “a feeling of desire and expectation for a certain thing to happen” or “grounds for believing that something good may happen”.
Hope is a powerful belief. But it can turn into cynicism if our expectations aren’t met.
To me, hope only feels powerful when it’s really sincere. Then it’s something stronger than hope.It’s faith.
So today I’m declaring that I HAVE FAITH IN THE HUMAN SPECIES.
And I don’t just mean this. I whole-heartedly feel it.
A crisis is the turning point of a story
My faith in humanity grew out of my own personal crisis—my depression and despair.
I used to believe that people don’t care. Now my understanding has shifted.
I can still hold that Big Story that says “our world is in crisis”, but the why of this story is different.
Another story has grown inside me, based on many observations, conversations and experiences over the last few years.
This is how the new story goes:
All of the social, environmental and economic “problems” in the world are symptoms of how we are being and how we are seeing. Many of us have become fearful and angry. So we struggle to protect just a piece of this world.
Our view of ourselves is shaped by our stories. Many of these stories have become tired and twisted. They’re holding us back from realising our full potential.
So the cure for these symptoms is simple: embrace life, love fiercely, see the potential in people, look for possibilities, and rework old stories to help us live well.
I can’t see The End in this story
The natural conclusion to my old story was that The World Is Going to End if we don’t do something big. Well, part of the world did end. Some of my old stories died.
That’s OK. Stories aren’t biological species. We just need to protect the ones that serve us well. We also need to let go of the ones that imperil our survival.
As for the future… I don’t know. My story about the future is an open book. I write it every day through my thoughts and my actions.
As for the future of the human species: that’s not just a story that’s waiting for us to discover. It’s a story that’s depending on us all to craft together.
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