Why we need a new story that gives meaning to the world
By Charles Eisenstein | December 29, 2012
Every culture has a Story of the People to give meaning to the world. Part conscious and part unconscious, it consists of a matrix of agreements, narratives, and symbols that tell us why we are here, where we are headed, what is important, and even what is real. I think we are entering a new phase in the dissolution of our Story of the People, and therefore, with some lag time, of the edifice of civilization built on top of it.
Sometimes I feel intense nostalgia for the cultural mythology of my youth, a world in which there was nothing wrong with soda pop, in which the Superbowl was important, in which the world’s greatest democracy was bringing democracy to the world, in which science was going to make life better and better. Life made sense. If you worked hard you could get good grades, get into a good college, go to grad school or follow some other professional path, and you would be happy. With a few unfortunate exceptions, you would be successful if you obeyed the rules of our society: if you followed the latest medical advice, kept informed by reading the New York Times, and stayed away from Bad Things like drugs. Sure there were problems, but the scientists and experts were working hard to fix them. Soon a new medical advance, a new law, a new educational technique, would propel the onward improvement of life. My childhood perceptions were part of this Story of the People, in which humanity was destined to create a perfect world through science, reason, and technology, to conquer nature, transcend our animal origins, and engineer a rational society.
From my vantage point, the basic premises of this story seemed unquestionable. After all, it seemed to be working in my world. Looking back, I realize that this was a bubble world built atop massive human suffering and environmental degradation, but at the time one could live within that bubble without need of much self-deception. The story that surrounded us was robust. It easily kept anomalous data points on the margins.
Since my childhood in the 1970s, that story has eroded at an accelerating rate. More and more people in the West no longer believe that civilization is fundamentally on the right track. Even those who don’t yet question its basic premises in any explicit way seem to have grown weary of it. A layer of cynicism, a hipster self-awareness has muted our earnestness. What was once so real, say a plank in a party platform, today is seen through several levels of “meta” filters to parse it in terms of image and message. We are like children who have grown out of a story that once enthralled us, aware now that it is only a story.
At the same time, a series of new data points has disrupted the story from the outside. The harnessing of fossil fuels, the miracle of chemicals to transform agriculture, the methods of social engineering and political science to create a more rational and just society – each has fallen far short of its promise, and brought unanticipated consequences that threaten civilization. We just cannot believe anymore that the scientists have everything well in hand. Nor can we believe that the onward march of reason will bring on social utopia.
Today we cannot ignore the intensifying degradation of the biosphere, the malaise of the economic system, the decline in health, or the persistence and indeed growth of global poverty and inequality. We once thought economists would fix poverty, political scientists would fix social injustice, chemists and biologists would fix environmental problems, the power of reason would prevail and we would adopt sane policies. I remember looking at maps of rain forest decline in National Geographic in the early 1980s and feeling both alarm and relief – relief because at least the scientists and everyone who reads National Geographic is aware of the problem now, so something surely will be done.
Nothing was done. Rainforest decline accelerated, along with nearly every other environmental threat that we knew about in 1980. Our Story of the People trundled forward under the momentum of centuries, but with each passing decade the hollowing-out of its core, that started perhaps with the industrial-scale slaughter of World War One, extended further. When I was a child, our system of ideology and mass media still protected that story, but in the last thirty years the incursions of reality have punctured its protective shell and have ruptured its essential infrastructure. We no longer believe our storytellers, our elites. We don’t believe the politicians, we don’t believe the doctors, we don’t believe the professors, we don’t believe the bankers, we don’t believe the technologists. All of them imply that everything is under control, and we know that it is not. We have lost the vision of the future we once had; most people have no vision of the future at all. This is new for our society. Fifty or a hundred years ago, most people agreed on the general outlines of the future. We thought we knew where society was going. Even the Marxists and the capitalists agreed on its basic outlines: a paradise of mechanized leisure and scientifically engineered social harmony, with spirituality either abolished entirely or relegated to a materially inconsequential corner of life that happened mostly on Sundays. Of course there were dissenters from this vision, but this was the general consensus.
When a story nears its end it goes through death throes, an exaggerated semblance of life. So today we see domination, conquest, violence, and separation take on absurd extremes that hold a mirror up to what was once hidden and diffuse. The year 2012 ended with just such a potent story-disrupting event: the Sandy Hook massacre. Even realizing that far more, equally innocent, children have been killed in the last few years by, say, U.S. drone strikes, it really got under my skin. No one was immune. I think that is because its utter senselessness penetrated every defense mechanism we have to maintain the fiction that the world is basically OK. Unlike 9/11 or Oklahoma City, and certainly unlike the horrors that go on around the world, there was no convenient narrative to divert the raw pain of what happened. We cannot help but map those murdered innocents onto the young faces we know, and the anguish of their parents onto ourselves. At the base of our Story of the People is separation, of humanity from nature, of me from you, of each from all, and this event united everyone, of whatever culture, nationality, or political persuasion. For a moment, we all felt the exact same thing. For at least a moment, I am sure, most people were in touch with the simplicity of what is important; I am sure many people had that fleeting feeling, “It doesn’t have to be that difficult, if only we could remember what is so obvious now, that love is all there is.” We humans have made such a mess of things, forgetting love. It is the same realization we have when a loved one is going through the dying process, and we think, “Ah, how precious this person is – why couldn’t I see that? Why couldn’t I appreciate all those moments we had together? All the arguments and grudges seem so tiny now.”
Following that moment, of course, people hurried to make sense of the event, subsuming it within a narrative about gun control, mental health, or the security of school buildings. Maybe I am imagining things, but I don’t think anyone really believes deep down that these responses touch the heart of the matter. Gun culture, we know, is a symptom of something deeper, and the violence that finds expression through guns would, even in their absence, come out in some other way. Mental illness too is a problem so vast that it is essentially unsolvable in our current system; it too comes from a deeper source. As for school security, a Chinese saying describes all the measures proposed: they stop the gentleman but not the villain.
No one would say that Sandy Hook was more horrible than the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges, or the imperialistic wars of the 20th century and 21st, but it was less comprehensible. Try as we might, we cannot fit it into our Story of the World. It is the anomalous data point that unravels the entire narrative – the world no longer makes sense. We struggle to explain what it means, but no explanation suffices. We may go on pretending that normal is still normal, but this is one of a series of “end time” events that is dismantling our culture’s mythology.
The evident futility of the responses that we are capable of imagining also points to this deep ideological breakdown. The responses are all about more control. Yet control, as we may or may not realize, is a key thread of the old story of humanity rising above nature, imposing technology and reason on the wild world and the uncivilized human. All around us, we see our efforts at control backfiring: wars to fight terrorism breed terrorism, herbicides breed superweeds, antibiotics breed superbugs, psychiatric medications lead to explosive outbursts of violence.
Looking back on the community schools a couple generations past, where children and parents could walk in and out of any door, can we say that the inexorable trend toward fortress schools in a fortress state is something anyone would have chosen? The world was supposed to be getting better. We were supposed to be becoming wealthier, more enlightened. Society was supposed to be advancing. Here I am in America, the most “advanced” nation on Earth, yet even as our financial wealth has doubled and doubled again in fifty years, we have lost wealth of a more basic form; for example, the social capital of feeling safe, feeling at home where we live. Is more security the best we can aspire to? What about a society where safety does not equal security? What about a world where no human being wields an assault rifle? What about a world where we mostly know the faces and stories of the people around us? What about a world where we know that our daily activities contribute to the healing of the biosphere and the well-being of other people? We need a Story of the People that includes all of those things – and that doesn’t feel like a fantasy.
Various visionary thinkers have offered versions of such a story, but none of them has yet become a true Story of the People, a widely accepted set of agreements and narratives that gives meaning to the world and coordinates human activity towards its fulfillment. We are not quite ready for such a story yet, because the old one, though in tatters, still has large swaths of its fabric intact. And even when these unravel, we still must traverse the space between stories, a kind of nakedness. In the turbulent times ahead our familiar ways of acting, thinking, and being will no longer make sense. We won’t know what is happening, what it all means, and, sometimes, even what is real. Some people have entered that time already.
I wish I could tell you that I am ready for a new Story of the People, but even though I am among its many weavers, I cannot yet fully inhabit the new vestments. In other words, describing the world that could be, something inside me doubts, rejects, and underneath the doubt is a hurting thing. The breakdown of the old story is kind of a healing process, that uncovers the old wounds hidden under its fabric and exposes them to the healing light of awareness. I am sure many people reading this have gone through such a time, when the cloaking illusions fell away: all the old justifications, rationalizations, all the old stories. Events like Sandy Hook help to initiate the very same process on a collective level. So also the superstorms, the economic crisis, political meltdowns… in one way or another, the obsolescence of our old mythos is laid bare.
We do not have a new story yet. Each of us is aware of some of its threads, for example in most of the things we call alternative, holistic, or ecological today. Here and there we see patterns, designs, emerging parts of the fabric. But the new mythos has not yet emerged. We will abide for a time in the space between stories. Those of you who have been through it on a personal level know that it is a very precious – some might say sacred – time. Then we are in touch with the real. Each disaster lays bare the real underneath our stories. The terror of a child, the grief of a mother, the honesty of not knowing why. In such moments we discover our humanity. We come to each other’s aid, human to human. We take care of each other. That’s what keeps happening every time there is a calamity, before the beliefs, the ideologies, the politics take over again. Events like Sandy Hook, for at least a moment, cut through all that down to the basic human being. In such times, we learn who we really are.
How can we prepare? We cannot prepare. But we are being prepared.