Why does it matter what story we tell? Stories shape our expectations—If you thought you were in a horror movie you would know never to go into a dark place alone. But if you are in children’s fantasy novel, that dark wardrobe might be the start of an amazing adventure. If we expect something to happen, and we see a path that leads in that direction, it seems natural and right to follow it.
Stories shape our attitudes. We could look at, for example the Rich Housewives of Atlanta and say “I will never be wealthy and famous like them, my life is unimportant. I lost the great lottery when I was born because I’ll never experience that.” Or I could look at the exact same life and notice that I have a roof over my head, and food to eat, and a community of people who care for one another. I could remember that even Americans at the bottom end of income inequality live better than 68% of the world’s population[i], and we could be filled with gratitude for our amazing good fortune, and spend our lives trying to share the amazing gifts we have received. I can't seem to find that one on cable though... The stories we tell give meaning to our experience.
One of the most important stories of our time is the story we are telling about Global Climate Disruption. Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian Economist and Psychologist, has taken on the question- if Climate Change is such a big deal, why aren’t we doing more about it? He came to a number of very interesting conclusions, using research from a wide range of disciplines. One of the findings that spoke loudly to me is that when we tell ourselves over and over that the apocalypse is coming, it renders us feeling too powerless to act. He writes “climate messages have been unpalatable because they – in their apocalypse form – evoke fear, guilt and helplessness…. Any story that tells me that my identity and lifestyle are wrong and destructive will be subconsciously resisted.” [p. 149] “When Climate change is framed as an encroaching disaster that can only be addressed by loss, cost and sacrifice, it creates a wish to avoid the topic. We’re predictably averse to losses. With a lack of practical solutions, helpless grows and the fear message backfires. We’ve heard that “the end is nigh” so many times, it no longer really registers” [p. 82] We tell the story so often that “it’s all going to hell” hoping it will spur us to action. But instead of driving us to work harder, we are paralyzed by despair.
David Korten, author, activist and former professor of the Harvard Business School, identifies 3 basic stories that he believes underlie 21st century American life.[ii] He talks about the “distant patriarch” story- in which a distant God is running the show and is “Creation’s sole source of agency and meaning.” This is the story folks are living inside of when they say “we don’t need to worry about Global warming- God will take care of us.”
Then there’s the “Grand Machine” story, which Korten says comes from the lineage of science; the world is just one big machine, driven by its own mechanisms and random chance, without purpose or meaning. We humans are driven by evolutionary self-interest to pursue profit and financial security for ourselves and our genetic line. “Economists urged us to turn to money as our ultimate measure of value and look to markets as our moral compass.” If you live inside this story, it’s hard to imagine any future for ourselves other than the inevitable depletion of the earth’s resources for our personal profit.
Then there is the “Mystical Unity” story; all that we experience is only an illusion, all that is real is our one-ness with the divine. If you live inside this story, you have no obligation to work to turn back climate change, because our world is only an illusion. A life of meditation and prayer is the only sensible choice.
I do agree with Korten that these 3 stories are very powerful in our times, but I look at Korten’s 3 stories, something doesn’t quite fit our story as Unitarian Universalists. I think the UUs have always found gaps those stories. We’ve long challenged the Distant Patriarch story, arguing since our earliest days that humans have fee will and what we do matters. As a religion born out of the enlightenment, we often fall under the sway of the great machine story, but we tell a different version. If the machine has no intrinsic meaning, we have long understood it is up to us to provide that meaning, to create together a meaning that leads not to a competition of wealth acquisition, but to the greatest good for all. We challenge the Mystic Unity story as well- while we believe deeply in the underlying oneness of all things, still we have always rolled up our sleeves to be part of co-creating a world of opportunity and justice. Because of that very oneness we hear the suffering of others and want to help. Our hymnal is full of songs inspiring us to “roll up our sleeves.”
And I do agree that and one thing all 3 of these stories have in common is that they don’t show us a way humans can participate in steering our world in a positive direction through this unprecedented crisis. “The old stories do not fit anymore, and the new stories are not yet fully formed.” Says teacher and author Llyn Roberts.
I believe part of the reason we are gathered here each Sunday (in addition to the promise of potluck and some great entertainment to follow) is because we are hungry for a different story to be part of , and we find that here. I believe this is one of our most important jobs as a faith tradition, and as this very particular beloved community. Here are some important aspect of our UU story:
1. Reality is important. We honor not only the data from the scientific community, but the data we observe in the world around us every day. We notice the creeks flooding more often than they used to, and strange periods of drought in the summer. We bring in our scientist friends to help us understand what we are seeing. Any story we tell has to harmonize with the facts, and when we get new data that doesn’t fit with our story, it is the story that must be changed.
2. UUs believe that we are all part of something larger than ourselves. Our story is a big story, from the flaring forth of the big bang, through the evolution of life on our planet, and we have a responsibility to the future generations not only of humans but of all life here, knowing that the story continues long after we are gone.
3. For a long time the UU story has told about the importance of each and every person. The struggle we are part of is not for the victory of one, or even of a few, but a world where every person has basic human rights and an freedom to grow, change and express themselves. Now, as we stand on the verge of changing our first principle from “every person” to “ever being” we honor how our story is changing, must change, to include not just humans but the great web of life of which we are a part. In the story we are weaving today, we see that from the great wolf, to the bacteria in your gut, to the trees of the rain forests, living beings play crucial roles in the health of our world that we had failed to imagine.
4. In our UU story, we believe that what we do matters. What you do and I do, and what we do together matters. Whether or not we believe in god, we tell a story where we are not passive observers of this unfolding story, but each of us can make a difference in what our world is becoming. Our story is a web to be woven one strand at a time- and each strand will shape the cloth in a unique and important way.
5. In this story, there is not one big boss battle to fight, not one evil king to destroy, We are not trying to win the contest of who has the most. Our story does not culminate in a great battle for victory, but an ongoing search for meaning. In our story, there is something more important than money or success, or even safety. Ours is an ongoing quest for less tangible trophies, like love and justice, beauty and truth.
6. When folks all around us are telling the story of how we are all going to hell, UUs have always agreed with what psychologists are proving today- that fear and despair are not the best motivators to change our lives toward the good. As the founder of American Universalism, John Murray, once said “You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.” Our story is not about the fiery pits of hell, but about the heaven we are building together here on earth.
7. In our ever unfolding story, I think there is always a place for listening. The hubris of humans has led to much destruction and far-reaching unintended consequences. Let ours be a story where we listen, not only to one another, but to people who are different than us, and to beings who are different from us. Remember the old stories where the youngest son goes out into the world to seek his fortune, and though he is neither as strong nor handsome as his older brothers, he listens to the wisdom of the ants an the birds and so has all the wisdom he needs for a happy ending? There is much wisdom we will need to face this crossroads in our story, and fortunately we have only begun to learn from one another and from our living earth. Let us listen, with our eyes and hearts and spirits and rational minds too.
8. Korten calls his new story “the living Universe story” he says “I am an intelligent, self-directing participant in a conscious, interconnected self-organizing cosmos on a journey of self-discovery toward ever-greater complexity, beauty, awareness, and possibility” or as we like to say it “the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part.” This world we share is not an inert machine, but life seeking life. Life growing and changing and learning, and dying and healing. We are deeply embedded in that web- when a hurricane sweeps the eastern seaboard and wipes out homes and businesses, when the harvest comes and the first delicious strawberries of spring delight our senses and feed our bodies. When we clear-cut a forest, and the weeds and brambles rush in like scar tissue protecting the wounded earth. We are part of the fabric of life, infused with the spirit of life that flowed long before humans evolved.
Once upon a time, there was a tribe of seekers who loved each other, and loved the world. By listening to the rivers and the rains and the maple trees in their valley, they knew that a great change was coming. “What can we do?” they wondered. They remembered that this was not the first time a great turning had changed the face of the world, they remembered that the universe had had many forms before this one. This was not the first time the living beings of earth had to transformed themselves or face extinction. They wanted to help turn the path of change in a direction of abundant life, so they told the stories of all they knew that had come before, and of the new problems that had never been faced before. They talked, and they cried, and they sometimes raised their voices in anger.
“Shhh” one of them said- “listen…” after a time a voice said “I hear the land where we bury our trash calling out to me, it is calling me to recycle” and so she put a recycling bin and a compost bin in the kitchen. “I hear the worry of people who can’t find work to feed their families” said one man, “so I want to figure out how to create jobs here in the Valley.” “You know”, said the first woman, “if only we had curbside composting, it would make it so much easier for all our friends and neighbors to compost, and that would help keep the soil healthy and create new jobs too.” Others who were listening felt full of the spirit of life and formed a task force to create green jobs in a brand new curbside recycling venture.
Again there was quiet for a time. A boy said “this spring I didn’t see many bees hovering over the flowers in my garden, does anyone know how we can help? An adult said “let’s go learn about pollinators, and see what we can do.”
And then there was more listening. “I’ve been listening to the air and the storms, and I feel called to do something to slow climate disruption. Would anyone like to carpool with me?” “I’m worried about that too, said another, everything I do from heating my apartment to driving my car to cooking my dinner uses fossil fuels. Let’s start a community solar program so that everyone has access to renewable energy.”
One woman heard the despair of people in jail for minor offences, and heard that not everyone was being treated equally, and others felt moved by her story and carpooled over to the city hall and created a citizen watch group to create fairness in the justice system.
“Well I don’t hear anything yet” said one woman “so I will water the garden. Maybe the garden has something to tell me, so I will listen while I work. And I will make sure we keep always a place for listening in our community.”
And this little community-that-could kept listening, and doing, and listening again. Listening to the voices of suffering, listening to the return of birds in the spring. listening the rush of storm water rushing over the banks of the river. Whenever they weren’t sure what their part of the story was, they listened. And though sometimes they felt alone in their work, they never were. The soil did its part, turning the compost into nutrients into life, and the sun shone down on the solar panels and the tomato plants. Some of their neighbors saw what they did and it made them think about their own stories. And all over the world there were other groups of folks, listening and responding. The story they were part of was so big, we could never tell it all here, but for seven generations each spring the earth awoke, and the people listened, and the spirit of life called them to a vision of hope for the whole living world.