As we around the world begin to slowly emerge from whatever form of COVID-19 lockdown we have been inhabiting for the past few months, and start to re-integrate into “normal life”, it is increasingly clear to many of us that nothing will ever be normal again.
We’ve all been forced into the things we thought were impossible, and captured a glimpse of what a new story of our world might look like.
So many of our old narratives that underpin the excuses we give ourselves for not implementing change have fallen away.
Halt global air travel to see what sort of reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions might be possible? — Impossible!
Cut out the daily commute, allow employees to work at home, and trust that they will do their best to work? — Impossible!
Take the cars off our streets to see if the birds and other wildlife might return to our cities? — Impossible!
And now we find that all those wild, out-there ideas of how we can lessen our impact on this planet, lead less busy lives, and spend more time with our families have been thrust upon us in a grand, global experiment. As the stories of our daily lives have been re-written, we’ve noticed a few things along the way:
We did see a significant reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions.
Parents of young children aside (bless us all), employees who had the luxury of taking their jobs online and working from home did quite well after the initial shock, with many reluctant to return to the office.
Birdlife did indeed return to the cities and coyotes were seen wandering the streets of San Francisco.
But as we begin to come back to our daily routines, how much are we slipping into old patterns? How committed are we to living into a new story that we’ve caught a brief glimpse of? Do we even notice or recognise that we are either perpetuating old stories and narratives every day or re-writing new ones, with everything that we do?
Storyteller and mythologist Martin Shaw suggests that we have “lost the fundamental house-making skills for how to welcome a story”:
“I think we are losing the capacity to behold them. We see them for sure — our eyes swiftly scan the glow of the computer screen for the bones of the tale, we audition them for whatever contemporary polemic is forefront in our minds, and then we impatiently move on. It is not hard then to suggest that we are fundamentally askew in our approach: we are simply not up to the intelligence of what the story is offering. Our so-called sophistication has our sensual intelligence in a head-lock and is literally squeezing the life out of it.”Martin Shaw
The bit that caught my attention in this passage is how we audition the stories we read for whatever polemic is at the forefront of our minds and then impatiently move on. How often do we scan stories online to see if they are in line with what we already believe? If we find they resonate with the narratives of our lives, we read on. If they come from a completely different point of view and we disagree, chances are that we will close the tab. Chances are, indeed, that we will never have opened that tab in the first place. There are after all, so many tabs to open. So many stories to read.
What Shaw is suggesting here is that in our fast paced, modern world, we have lost the capacity to deeply listen and really invite a story in. Once the revered system by which we communicated the most vital information with each other, story has lost its place and meaning. We pick and choose bits of it, look for the facts, decide which things we like and discard the rest. We shape the stories to fit our pre-existing beliefs and to play nicely with the ones that we already hold in our heads.
In the book that I’m currently writing, I’m exploring how the role of story and narrative can support systems change across a number of spheres. I’m finding that while some of the frames that we hold into which we slot the stories we come across are very hard to shift, baked into our neural circuitry, others are more fluid and can be oriented towards positive systems change if we stick to grounding our stories in our values.
While the coronavirus crisis has brought out much of the darker side of human nature, we have seen so many stories of solidarity, unity, compassion and kindness as mutual aid groups have cropped up to help elderly neighbours with grocery and medicine deliveries, underground networks mobilised to provide face masks for healthcare workers, and people organised childcare for essential workers.
So with a glimpse of a new version of how the world could be, what will we do with these new stories that have been shown to us so fleetingly?
American is erupting in riots following the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, as people are no longer willing to let the underlying narrative of white supremacy stand. People are concerned about sweeping privacy reforms and the acceleration of location tracking that is being included as part of the COVID response. While it may be a necessary evil at this point, we need to be vigilant about data sovereignty and how long these measures extend, as Naomi Klein’s book and documentary “The Shock Doctrine” suggests that these are legitimate fears, with many neoliberal policies being pushed through following times of disaster.
Providing a counter view and a more uplifting and inspirational read in these times, Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built in Hell” is more fitting for where we want to go. Through telling the stories of the aftermath of five different disasters across the span of 100 years and three countries, she highlights how disasters can bring out the best in human cooperation and unity, providing “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”
My suspicion is that to be truly ready to embrace a new story of humanity, we need to start listening to each other’s stories — really listening. Listening with the express intention of understanding, rather than waiting patiently for our turn to refute a point or to present an alternative view. Without trying to make what the other person is saying fit the narrative that you already hold inside your head.
How else are we going to reconcile our individual stories to build a cohesive narrative of how to move forward together in a way that unites our global society? Tell me a story.
Alina Siegfried is a storyteller, narrative strategist, spoken word artist and systems change advocate based in Wellington, New Zealand. She is passionate about the use of personal stories and narrative to shift culture towards a more regenerative, equitable and just world. Alina is currently writing her first book which is an inspirational memoir on the use of storytelling and narrative to support systems change. You can learn more on her website and sign up here for book updates. This article originally appeared on Medium.
Photo by Daniel McCullough