We tell ourselves stories to give our lives meaning. This is how we know who we are, where we came from, what we should be doing, and where we want to go next. This is how we decide what is important and even what is real.
Individuals, families, communities, cultures and nations may have different stories and so they hold different identities and expectations. The implication of this understanding about stories is that, when we change our stories, our realities, our lives, and our futures change too.
I was raised as a Kool-Aid kid; two cups of sugar and a packet of artificial colors and flavors made my world better. By the time I raised my children, they learned that “things go better with Coke,” which could make the world “sing in perfect harmony.” Children are now told that high fructose corn syrup will make them sick and shorten their lives. Did you know that New York City is banning large servings of sugary soft drinks?
In the earlier history of this country, settlers told themselves stories of magnificent destiny, glorious exploration, conquest and development. A continent of unbounded resources beckoned the adventurous with open land, virgin stands of timber, and even gold. They believed that one had only to keep looking forward, stake their claim and grow rich from exploiting abundance.
We believed that science, industry and reason would reform our animal natures as we designed rational Utopian societies. But, we now hear stories of declining resources, unintended consequences, heedless pollution, extreme partisan ideology, and unbridled grabs for unconscionable wealth and power. Science, industry and reason have become targets of criticism more than sources of hope.
In response to their fear, some people want to run away. They throw up their hands, abandon hope and retreat to dreams of individual autonomy and a story of God who loves them (and those like them) best. This is like retreating to a mother who will hold you, tell you that everything will be better, and bake fresh cookies for you; it is a comforting deception. Others want to fight. They hold up their guns and scream at any perceived threat. “I’ll get my friends (or father, or bigger brother) and then you’ll see.”
What we need is a pervasive story of unifying community. In this story, our individual and family well-being is tied to our shared ability to cooperate – uniting to solve problems. Our advances in science, industry and reason are our newest abundant resources, not things to reject outright. However, modernity cannot lead us directly to a more perfect union. Only a more perfect civility can produce an improved civilization. This is the story we must tell.
It will not be comfortable, for a time, to live in a world of opposing stories. But, we need to dream of ways that every choice leads toward shared peaceableness and security for not just ourselves, but our neighbors and our world. We must be willing to extend our hands of fellowship instead of the muzzles of our guns. We have, at many different times, sacrificed so much for what we stand for. Who will tell our new stories? Who will stand up now to make their sacrifice of faith in the possibilities of our future?