For a resilient society we must challenge the master narratives that catastrophise our past suffering with our own stories

Stories for me kick in about the time I finally began to do some interesting things with my working life. I spent a large chunk of my 20s and 30s helping groups of kids mostly (in schools mostly) across Ireland, Britain and in what was then a carefully delineated western Europe from Lisbon to Wilhelmina in northern Sweden to Keady in south Armagh.

In west Berlin, nearly four years before the wall came down, I vaguely recall gathering a story about a boat with two engines each pulling in the opposite directions: inevitably, it ripped apart and then sank leaving its occupants no option but to swim for shore. Stories are, I still believe, a really powerful way for people to externalise their personal relationships with wider reality.

As the playwright Bryan Delaney has so memorably said, “profound and master storyteller deep within us that we don’t even know”, so that we need to be vigilant about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s a concern I think has all too often left us and we settle for stories created for us by innumerable others who don’t necessarily have the public good at heart.

But it is a murky landscape out there. Peter Brooks in his latest tome (Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative) highlights the fact not only that not all stories are true, but that “among the powers of narrative is the power to deceive”. In her New Statesman review, Alice Robb writes:

Brooks’s fear is that we are so over-saturated with story that we have become undiscerning consumers, slipping too willingly into the familiar rhythms of plot, even when scepticism – of where information is coming from and of who is delivering it – would be more appropriate. Our constant exposure to narrative, he writes, might even leave us vulnerable to trusting conspiracy theories.

It’s a hard line to walk, particularly in politics where it gets tougher and tougher to question the truth of anything that passes your nose at 1/100th of a nano second. Does it smell right (a nose for a story is a telling old metaphor)? Today we might ask, is it human or machine? Or, more importantly, can it live with all the relevant data, or just the ones that support its ‘truth’?

For instance it is now fairly commonplace for southern journalists to wholly identify with Sinn Féin’s criticism of the DUP for bringing down Stormont early last year, excluding (possibly quite innocently) from their account the fact Sinn Féin did the same for a full three years before that. Such critically missing context in modern journalism is a classic of a poor story telling genre.

Robb again:

In 18th-century novels authors took pains to explain how they had come to know the story they were telling, often including elaborate forewords in which they claimed to have discovered a manuscript or a trove of letters in an abandoned suitcase, or to be anonymously publishing a dangerous confession. These framing devices – if not always plausible – at least compelled the reader to think critically about the relationship between author and story. [Emphasis added]

I don’t believe this is intentional. But I do believe the speed at which the modern press is expected to conduct its important democratic business is killing us as a society in ways that also affect us individually. In a recent podcast for Slate Willa Paskin, who is extremely sceptical about the uses to which storytelling is put by corporate America, had this to say about real storytelling:

…my cynicism about storytellers as a business strategy is just the flip side of my idealism, my gut feeling that storytelling is about more than making us do stuff, that they are this ancient, genuine, unruly, unpredictable thing that can bind us all together. And part and parcel of that idealism is that I also believe telling good stories is really hard.

Telling good stories that are anchored in the real world is not easy at the best of times, but it is almost impossible when the storyteller has no time to listen, consider the evidence and report, which is the notional tax our high speed news business imposes upon journalists.  As John Kellden notes, “slow knowledge flows are optimal. Slow begets vibrant and resilient organising”.

If we want resilient societies, instead of wringing our hands we need to slow the whole story gathering business down so that we can make better judgements about what’s actually true and what’s just another cynical, one eyed corporate message telling us to abandon all hope of a better future. I’ll end with an amazing essay from the Yale Review recounting a story of resilience.

In it the Scottish born, Sierra Leone writer Aminatta Forna recounts an incident from the Sierra Leonian civil war when her cousin Morlai was stopped and singled out for execution by government troops as a suspected rebel. He was saved when it turned out that one of the troops had been a pupil of his and spoke up for him and he was reprieved.

Forna notes that resilience is not simply about individual temperament, but how we respond to shocks as a society:

Our narrative identity is derived from the stories told to us as children by our parents, combined with our own experiences and framed by a master narrative constructed by the society we live in. It is a vital part of our world outlook, informs how we respond to opportunities, challenges, and setbacks.

…there are certain elements of a narrative identity which can be associated with higher levels of mental health and wellbeing. Chief among them are agency and meaning. This puts into clinical terms something writers have always known. Wittingly or unwittingly we may maintain the narratives we ourselves have imbibed. We may also use our powers to challenge them.

As Salman Rushdie once observed, “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.” Or as the Danish writer Isak Dinesen put it, “All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story.”

And finally…

None of us can avoid pain. But we can change the way we look at our suffering, from a place of despair to one in which the past is not forgotten but transcended, and a future of fulfillment remains in sight. For Morlai, it is the courage of a young man who risked associating himself with a suspected rebel to stop a firing squad from killing his beloved teacher—that is the apex of his story.

As Delaney notes, we all can have a choice to make “between the stories that shrink life and the stories that expand it and allow us to breath and to grow and to flourish“.

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