I am in the middle of an impressive yet troubling book by Steve Almond entitled Bad Stories. This work about the American psyche in 2018, by the New York Times best-selling author and co-host of the Dear Sugars podcast (with fellow writer Cheryl Strayed), looks at the many reasons we came to be where we are today as a nation. There is much to consider in this work. But for now, I want to focus on stories — good and bad — and what they can mean personally and professionally for those of us who look to “tell the full American story.”
Almond writes, “I’ve placed my faith in stories because I believe them to be the basic unit of human consciousness. The stories we tell, and the ones we absorb, are what allow us to pluck meaning from the rush of experience.” He then quotes the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who insists that our species came to dominate the world in part because of “our unique cognitive ability to believe in the imagined, to tell stories that extend beyond our bonds beyond clan loyalties.” For a powerful example of storytelling, we don’t have to look much beyond last Saturday’s address at the royal wedding by Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry.
As a lover of history, I believe in the power of stories. Like each of you, I’ve heard them my entire life. As I wrote recently, people I love told stories that were wrong — bad stories — which perpetuated a false reality that was focused on keeping one race of people under the control of another and to “warp our fears into loathing.”
“Our larger systems of cooperation, whether spiritual, political, legal, or financial, require faith in a beautiful fiction known as the common good….For most of our history, humans relied upon folklore and religious parable to conceptualize the common good. But much of our progress as a species, Harari insists, is a function of cultures shifting from superstitious stories to verifiable ones, as happened during the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century. Our embrace of reason and empiricism has saved a lot of people from dying of illness and starvation. It has led to a standard of living within many precincts of the world that would have been unimaginable in previous epochs. It has not, however, changed the fact that we still choose the stories by which we construct reality (emphasis added).
What happens, then, when some of the stories we tell ourselves are bad, meaning fraudulent either by design or negligence? What happens when the stories we tell ourselves are frivolous? Or when we ignore stories that are too frightening to confront? What happens when we fall under the sway of stories intended to sow discord, to blunt our moral imaginations, to warp our fears into loathing and our mercy into vengeance? The principle argument of this book is that bad stories lead to bad outcomes (emphasis added).
…bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously. If bad stories become pervasive enough they create a new and darker reality.”
We work at telling the full American story at the National Trust in part to correct bad stories, and in part to take reality seriously. I think that is work at the core of our lives together. It has also led me to think about the personal stories I tell myself and others. When I get a (minor) fact wrong I’m fond of saying, “this story may not be factually accurate, but it is true,” meaning that it points us in the right direction. Almond, in a response to a question from his seven-year-old son about the truth of a set of stories, says something similar when he notes that the truth of certain stories isn’t really the point. “A story didn’t have to be true (which I interpret as factual) to produce a good outcome, to help people behave a little more kindly.” Sometimes the intent of the storyteller to either build up or tear down is the determining factor of a story’s value.
If we can recognize the value of others as well as our role in listening to, understanding, and honoring their stories, I believe we’ll be on the right path to taking reality seriously. And we’ll be correcting bad stories.
Have a good week.
More to come…