Stories to live by

“A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves” wrote the Nigerian poet Ben Okri. “Sick storytellers can make nations sick.”

If this is so, what kinds of stories do we live by in Britain today? Most of us could probably name a few political or cultural ‘myths’ – big over-arching stories that make sense of the world for people. Sometimes they crop up in politics. ‘It’s not like it used to be’ is one that politicians have referenced in recent years, and it gives people a narrative on which to hang their dissatisfaction.

Stories turn up in economics too, and George Monbiot explores this idea in his book Out of the Wreckage. The story of our time is neoliberalism, he argues, and basically it can be summarised as follows:

  • State over-reach in the early 20th century led to disasters like the Nazis in Germany or Stalin in Russia. Humanity barely survived these collectivist philosophies, which crushed freedom and opportunity.
  • The answer to this is freedom for entrepreneurs and investors to follow their best ideas, leaving behind state organisation for the invisible hand of the markets.
  • We can all take part in this economy as competing individuals. The best way for the market to distribute its benefits is for us all to pursue our own interests.

The story is self-reinforcing. It has the promise of wealth and freedom for all, provided they work hard. The counter-arguments are already built in. Anyone suggesting a greater role for the state can be easily rebuffed: the communists tried state control, and look how that turned out.

The problem is, the story isn’t true. It’s a sick story, and it makes nations sick. Following your own selfishness undermines community and reciprocity. It breeds loneliness and alienation. Collective action becomes impossible, and democracy rings hollow. It’s a false narrative, based on a flawed understanding of human nature.

Neoliberalism paints us as people in competition with each other to get what we want as individuals, the “war of all against all” that Thomas Hobbes described. But humans are – uniquely in the animal world – a cooperative species. “We are better than we are told we are,” says Monbiot, “better than we are induced to be.”

Ultimately, the dominant story can only fail us, because it is false. It is a distortion of humanity. In the long run, it will never fit. In the past, Christians may have employed a different word for such a story: heresy.

Heresy is a charged word, and in the history of the church it has rarely been deployed with grace. More often than not it has been used to silence dissent and reinforce the power of the church. But the danger of heresy, or false doctrine, isn’t that you’re wrong on some theological principle. It’s about choosing a sick story – one that will unravel on you further down the line.

A good example of this can be found in the story of the Barmen Declaration, issued in 1934 by German evangelicals in response to the formation of an official pro-Nazi state church. Authored by theologian Karl Barth and others, the declaration insists on the independence of the church, and refuses to acknowledge any other authority above Christ and the scriptures. “We reject the false doctrine,” it reads, that the church should “appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.”

To the Lutherans and Reformed churches, fascism was a false doctrine that could only fail the church and the nation. It was not a story to live by, and as other churches chose to ally themselves with the Reich, it called for a public refutation. As it happens, we know that they were right. The sick story of the Nazis still haunts us today.

Denouncing a false doctrine is not enough, however. Stories don’t work to logic or reason. They are felt, intuited. They resonate with us. Since they provide us with easy ways to understand the world, we do not cast them off lightly. So as Monbiot says, “the only thing that can displace a story is a story.”

What is that new story? Out of the Wreckage talks about “coming home to ourselves”, and creating “a politics of belonging”. Monbiot suggests we start with local action to restore community and renew civic life, slowly eroding our competitive individualism and nurturing the cooperative side of humanity.

Alex Evans investigates guiding stories in his book The Myth Gap. He sees stories of redemption and restoration as critical in our current time. “I think that tales of restoration are just about the most powerful and resonant kind there are. They speak directly to a profound yearning in all of us, an instinct that while the world may be broken, it can also be made right again, and that this may at some level be what we are here to do.”

Restoration is a theme picked up by Tearfund in their paper The Restorative Economy, which is a powerful articulation of a new economic vision. Written by Alex Evans and Richard Gower, it suggests a new and resonant story would need to call us to:

  • a larger us (interdependence and justice)
  • a longer future (an intergenerational covenant and a focus on conserving/restoring creation)
  • a better ‘good life’ (not just focused on consumerism but having a more fundamental sense of purpose and belonging in the cosmos).

In his surreal novel Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut spins a yarn about how humanity gets trapped in a decade long deja-vu. Everyone powerlessly watches themselves for ten years as they make the same mistakes, the same bad choices. When the timequake ends, people are bored and depressed and have more or less forgotten that they have free will. Only Vonnegut’s protagonist emerges from the coma with any sense of agency. He calls people back to themselves with a mantra. In many ways it summarises the task for those waking up to neoliberalism, and the inequality, alienation and environmental destruction it has caused:

“You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.”

2 Replies to “Stories to live by”

  1. A very thought-provoking piece! We may even need to think of some utopian position from which we can backcast. Now that would certainly be a story worth telling!


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