Once Upon a Time; or Telling New Stories to Save the World

As Yuval Noah Hariri indicated in both of his books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, homo sapiens came to dominate all homo species as well as many other species because of its ability to cooperate. Homo sapiens developed that ability to cooperate across many individuals, time, and space, according to Hariri, because of its ability to tell and believe stories. And oh what stories we have come to believe — gods and monsters, gods and monsters. (And democracy. And the free market. And justice systems. And the importance of putting details of our life on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, with the corollary that people give a shit about the details of our life enough to view them.) So we excelled at creating vast networks of behavior that enhanced our ability to survive and thrive (often at the expense of whatever was in our way — large animals, other people who believe somewhat different things, the Earth).

Although I haven’t read the book yet, I believe Kurt Andersen argues in Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire that it was Americans’ particular impulse to believe all kinds of stories that led us to this fake-news moment in American history. He says our individualistic national culture was based on “epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies….” He claims that we began to believe that truth itself is individual and relative. Now in the face of scientific facts — that is, provable, verifiable — people still feel free to believe the opposite. Story is stronger than fact, and has sunk us deep into fantasyland, to the peril of our institutions and our world.

But maybe story can save us too. I keep thinking about the energy crisis in the ’70s. People actually changed their behavior, temporarily anyway — drove cars with better mileage and drove them more slowly, turned their heat down, recycled. Sure, there were plenty of gas-guzzling cars still on the road, plenty of speeders, plenty of people strolling around their homes in shorts when it was 0 degrees. But a lot of people changed their behavior based on ongoing stories of what will happen if we don’t. We heard tell of a crisis, we heard about what we could do, we did it — I mean, with the help of some economic incentives and disincentives. I think too about littering. In spite of all the litter I see on the street, I suspect the anti-littering campaigns, particularly those that target kids, have created what amounts to a widespread habit of not throwing stuff on the ground. We believed in that crying Indian in that TV ad from the ’70s. Don’t cry, man, I’ll put this hamburger wrapper in this trash can, okay? Geesh.

So come on, storytellers. We need a new story to believe to bring us to the next level of development as a species. We need us some fresh gods and monsters to save us from ourselves.

Once upon a time

I had a story-full weekend, a drive up the highway with various NPR-based story shows, lunch and a walk with some storytelling friends, and attendance at my first story slam, and then watching the Oscars, which is, after all a celebration of the many ways to tell a great story.

The story slam was an amazing feel-good event as people eager for stories crammed into a bar on a gray Sunday early evening, clapping, laughing, cheering for the doughty tellers, who spoke of near-death accidents, triumphs over adversity, lucky breaks, sudden perceptions and changes in perspective, and the many ways in which we get by with a little help from our friends.

A well told story is a symphony of little pauses and great crescendos, of sotto voces and staccato lines, of discordance but ultimately resolution. And the listener is active. An entire bar of a standing-room-only crowd would be utterly still at times when a storyteller had us in his or her spell, and then explode in laughter or applause. It was magic. The best kind — not the spell that turns an Other into a toad, but the kind that enchants us all into dreamers in the same dream.

Although I’m not a storyteller myself, I do believe that it is in story that we are most human, most prone to empathy, the only connection that will move us forward as a species away from our tendency toward xenophobia and hostility and toward community in its broadest definition — you, whoever you are, and me.