The Power of Stories
Narrative as vehicle of meaning and as pathway into the new
For our Climate Dialogue courses we find that understanding the frame and power of stories can greatly support spaces of dialogue. It invites us into a healthy distance between us and our worldviews, and cultivates a curiosity for what might be left out.
Our minds are helpful allies, yet they can also stand in the way. Understanding the climate crisis rationally and mentally is essential in order to develop solutions based on ethical design. Yet how, and from which place, does innovation emerge? And how can our solutions be based in a story we truly want to believe in and live for?
This blogpost is a personal account on our work with narrative as Pathways. It is also a collection of questions, that might linger around with us long enough until suddenly we realise we have lived into the answer.
My first encounter with understanding narrative was 10 years ago, when I went to university to study Cultural Sociology. I found it fascinating, getting to know about humans as meaning making creatures, as cultivators of culture. I loved studying the modern world in the same way as an anthropologist studies the rituals of foreign cultures. How do we create and maintain meaning, individually and as a society? I learned that stories are essential vehicles in this process, as the basic frameworks that shape and guide beliefs, enable communication, and how powerful they are in influencing our perceptions and our actions.
During the Masters we dived deep into how reality is constructed, filtered straight away upon perceiving it, and shaped as we think and speak about it. Towards the end of this education all the theory got to a more tender part of me, and I dipped into a feeling of nihilism. If everything is a construct, and if truth is such a slippery slope of what we make of it, what is the point in believing anything? Luckily I did not hang out at this point of pointlessness for long, and realised that if beliefs shape the world as I perceive and act in it, I might just as well believe in something that makes my life beautiful and meaningful. Only later did I start to realise that this has been one of the most powerful decisions in my life. This shift eventually led me to steer away from a career in the wordy world of academia, realising I want to actively shape the world I would like to live in with my hands and my actions. I started gardening and learning about the living world we are part of and the intricate and beautiful ways it functions, changes, breathes, pulses, and responds.
So what are the stories we have been told? And how do we feel about them? Every story probably has some overlap with the truth, but no story can ever get it totally. I learned in both scientific as well as spiritual contexts that words could never grasp, hold, or fixate truth – which is something both elusive as ever present, changing as reliant as the pulse of our heartbeat. So if it is not about some final truth, what is it about? Stories are the implicit, unspoken frames behind every message, giving structure and power to that message. Without stories it would be impossible to communicate, they are the carriers of information.
There are recurrent patterns that make up stories. The most simple one is the binary between good and bad, the great holy and the devilish evil. There is also a dynamic in each story, where main actors are driving it forward, the heroes, the players that have the power to create impact and change things. There is always a goal, a holy grail, someplace in the future to reach where all will be resolved, the highest potential. Every story has a challenge to overcome, posed by someone or something that does not belong, by being different, dangerous, even evil. Who is the implicit or explicit enemy in the hot debates about gender, veganism, or climate change? What is this sacred future in the news and the media we see and read? Who has agency in the story of the world you believe in?
With all the above we are only just getting started. Because what is perhaps more important, is all that which is untold. Beyond the implicit frame of the hero, the sacred and the evil, there is that which is left out completely. That which is implicitly invisible and simply non-existent in the framing of the story, its not spoken of, not thought of, not there. This is where it gets really interesting.
In the stories about climate change the main actor often is the modern human being, the consumer, policy maker, the scientist or the engineer. The holy grail might be green growth, policy making, carbon-neutral energy, and new technology, “there where science, policy and finance finally meet and unite”. The evil are the carbon emissions, slow solutions, conservative approaches. If you read this and sense that all this is obvious and true for you, consider that the “modern human” is a construct in which the majority of people in this planet does not fit in. Charles Eisenstein’s book “Climate – a New Story” has been an important inspiration for me. In his book he argues that an essential piece is left out of the climate narrative: that nature has intrinsic value and beauty beyond it’s use for human beings.
Who falls out of this frame and how does that influence their agency? What could be our collective “holy” in stead of technology and policy making? What is the highest goal we can strive for as a society?
In the Pathways workshops we examine story and opinion in spaces of dialogue. We see dialogue as spaces to cultivate curiosity, build resilience and expand our views. It is a process that is only possible with willingness to be transformed through it as it happens. This can be tender, touching, even painful. Hearing a different opinion about something so relevant and potentially scary like climate change can be intense, even threatening. In our work we notice that tension can come in quickly. Something is said and the whole atmosphere in the room changes. Talking about the power of words!
To deal with this dynamic we focus on embodiment, self-regulation. Simple approaches like deep breathing, shaking, dancing, can release the density and tension that can build up in spaces of dialogue. There is nothing intrinsically wrong about tension, as long as it moves and stays dynamic. In the right amount it can be used as a creative force! We feel these spaces of meeting in conversation about something we all really truly care about – our life on this planet – is more important than ever. We also observe that it is becoming more difficult to do so than ever. Language can feel a little bit like a mine field. Say a wrong word, express a wrong opinion, is like taking a wrong step, and before you know it there is an explosion. While using this metaphor I consider that a war reference might trigger some people, I do not want to cause pain and to what extent do I censor myself for that? Can we own our triggers? Why did we come together here again?
Social media allows us to take in big amounts of information, and this input is becoming increasingly personalised through our specific networks and the algorithms at work in the background. With the metaphor of story, one could say that a lot falls out of the frame, becomes invisible in the creation of our world view and perception. Contradicting information abounds, and its hard to trace the source of information, let alone the intention or strategy behind it. Knowing all of this, we see it is important to take our own views, and that of others, with a grain of salt. Inviting different views together in one space can support us to come out of this bubble, witness the complexity, and bring insights together for a deeper understanding. Dialogue is an emergent space that happens when its authentic, to be authentic means to express fully what is alive in you in that very moment. It’s hard to be authentic on a mine field. Can we listen to each other in a space beyond right or wrong, knowing that we are all here because we care deeply? How important are our personal narratives? When we collectively embrace the unknown, with curiosity, listening, transforming and responding, we create powerful containers that can hold immense amounts of complexity.
Being aware of story, and more importantly about what is left out of each story is essential for real dialogue and emergence. It gives us the possibility to examine our views, become quickly aware of manipulation, and create a healthy distance between us and our worldviews. The constructs we have can be useful, they help us navigate a complex world, they give meaning to our lives, they are precious. To be part of life unfolding in its complexity our constructs need to stay open and responsive. Questioning our stories, allows for curiosity, true listening and real dialogue. Where is this person coming from, what story is speaking here? Spaces of dialogue, where we speak and listen with the real openness to be transformed through the process are essential in these times of change and transition.
We cannot undo story, but we can research stories, question them, play with them. Recognising the power of story gives us the ability to work with that power, and direct it in a way that serves. When I decided 8 years ago to be and believe in that which creates beauty and meaning I was doing exactly that. Living a story into being becomes synonymous with living the life we want to live. What is that story for you? What is a good life on this planet for you, who are the main actors, what is the highest potential? Here follows my story, thankfully inspired by the Work that Reconnects and Charles Eisenstein.
Climate change is inviting and initiating us to forge a new and ancient relationship, one that holds the planet and all of its places, ecosystems, and species sacred—not only in our philosophy, but in our material relationship. In this relating we know all beings are embedded in an intricate and pulsating web of life, of giving, receiving, realising, forgetting, becoming, maintaining and dying. I am because you are and life creates the conditions for life.
We are invited to return to being caretakers of the earth. As human beings we exist at an important intersection in the web of life, as we interact and relate to so many different species for our needs, our food, crafts, buildings, prayer and arts. This dense interconnection defines our species, our place in the web of life is essential and we step in to do our work. Using is caring, harvesting is maintaining. We are engineers, slowing, spreading and storing water, wherever we settle. Well timed patterns of disturbance in the landscape enhance fertility and accellerate or pause succession. Our abilities to travel, transform, envision, communicate are there for good reasons. Nature thrives with our presence, when we remember to feed the hand that feeds us.
The extent of the damage human beings can do, is the same as the positive impact that can be done, as the pendulum swings in both ways with equal force. This time of chaos and crisis is a painful necessity for the old to die. In the face of it we become resilient, mature, receptive. We let ourselves be transformed through the process, and take the opportunity for a deep evolution of our consciousness and civilisation as a whole. We are part of the Great Turning, an essential adventure of our time, of living the transition towards a life-sustaining civilisation into being. As we befriend the unknown, the mystery, we become vessels for what wants to change. Individually and collectively we are open for that which wants to emerge, and become instruments in this evolution.