Our Stories About the World Change the World

How our everyday stories create our social reality, and how changing them can make the world better.

Our Stories About the World Change the World
Photo by Dom Fou / Unsplash
“The first object of human association is the improvement of their condition.” — Thomas Jefferson: Declaration and Protest of Virginia, 1825.

Once upon a time there was a grand experiment to see if a country by the people, for the people, could survive the tests of time and never perish from the earth. Or so the story goes.

Myth has purpose and myth has power. The myth of an exceptional America tells us that the United States exists to uphold the common good and promote democracy around the globe. This is a deeply-embedded story that many people tell themselves, and it’s one that they derive a lot of hope and happiness from following. Unfortunately, it’s a myth that keeps people from understanding the subtitles of their country — or even wanting to try to understand.

It’s in-vogue to deconstruct common myths these days, especially those which deal with inherited power structures — and that trend is, by and large, a positive one. But we risk losing something if we discard the myth outright, just as we lose something if we accept a story as true without first exploring all its dimensions. If we fail to recognize the gains (even as we recognize the shortcomings) we run the risk of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and leaving ourselves worse off than we were before.

All for one and one for all

Countries should provide for their people. This is the story I like to tell, and it’s more complicated than it at first appears. For one thing: what does “care for” mean? Doesn’t North Korea care for its people, tend them, utilize them for the good of the State? That’s obviously not the kind of “care” I’m talking about.

To care for its people, a country needs to care for the network that supports its people, and therefore supports itself. After all, countries and States are themselves stories! We collectively decide that a flag means something, that borders on a map mean something — these are not inherent truths about the world. My definition of care, therefore, is holistic: a country should provide a space for human flourishing, which is dependent upon the stabilization of ecosystem connections. If the whole ecosystem is strong, humans will do better.

The thing is: even this radically simplified example of my view of the world is highly at odds with the normal mythic structure inherent in the United States. The stories many people tell themselves are a bit different and usually incorporate some example of “American Exceptionalism”.

Exceptional till the end

International surveillance, illegal military interventions, and the destruction of common resources: the exceptionalism myth provides justification for all of these things and worse; the exceptionalism myth ignores the genocide our country is built upon, and the massive slave industry that made it powerful, and the systemic pain that millions of Americans continue to live with because of these historical experiences.

But, for many, the myth that the United States is “the best” allows people to simplify their lives and place themselves on the side of “justice, light, and goodness.” In its most simplified form, the one that a vast portion of the country stand behind, this is a powerful mythology… and it’s one that shouldn’t be overlooked or disrespected just because of its negative potential.

There are many incredible potentials still untapped within the American experiment, and I believe that some stories about what the United States is — stories that are, in many ways, untrue — actually might provide a template for what we could become. We need stories to pave the way toward the future; our myths define how we see ourselves, but they also grant us a template for change and growth beyond the norm. Fighting the conservative instinct (not political, in this case, merely the instinct to keep things as they are and have been) requires something to strive for.

Returning to the better myth

We have to assume that, by and large, most human beings want the same things. We want our families to be safe (well-fed, sheltered, capable of choosing their path in life). Social norms might alter how we look at these basics, but ultimately it always comes back to the core. We also generally want a few other things: love, fulfillment, and a degree of leisure time.

Spiderwebbing through all of these needs, however, is something extremely important and profound: a need for meaning.

Mythologies allow us to come to terms with the world around us, to encircle complexities with simple abstract symbols. Not only does this make complexities manageable to us, it allows us to manipulate complex situations in simple ways.

Right now, a lot of people are struggling with the disillusion of specific myths about what it means to be a citizen of this country. Some of them are actively fighting any attempt at disillusionment, because even casually entertaining such thoughts leaves the story of their entire life vulnerable to doubt and criticism.

This deconstruction of mythology is inevitable, however, unless highly regressive action is taken to stem it (and history shows that, even then, change still occurs with time).

If change is inevitable but certain mythological structures are still needed in order to generate progress, perhaps we can return to the myth of an “Exceptional America” — just, in a slightly different way.

We have deep roots for a popular myth of a progressive United States. We might be able to salvage the dream of a grand American future if we can provide the citizens of this country with a new myth to believe in, based on the roots of the old; a mythology of a country united in the common goals of self-betterment, mutual aid, and the true exceptionalism that comes from… actually being exceptional. If we can turn the next part of our zeitgeist into a vast reformation, where we acknowledge the need for social betterment, community-owned infrastructure, and strong civic-minded education, then maybe we’ll actually get to live out the dream of an exceptional America after all.

How do we change the conversation?

The key is connecting to the stories that people tell themselves about “how things really are.” Everything we think of as fact is imbued with story. We tell ourselves stories about the people in our lives: what we think they’re thinking and feeling, often what we think they’re thinking and feeling about us! We tell ourselves stories about our experiences, about why this or that thing occurs to us. But we also tell ourselves collective stories, stories that we learned growing up and have never gone back to explore.

These deeper stories are difficult to explore, but not impossible: it’s actually by beginning to examine the first type that we can learn to analyze the second.

By examining the stories we tell ourselves about the important people in our lives, by questioning the truth of our own perceptions in this most intimate sphere, we will slowly learn two things: being mindful of our thinking makes our relationships better, and at the same time makes our thinking better. This process begins a self-repeating loop that will, over time, grind away at the beliefs we learned earlier in life. The better we get at this, the more we stand out from our peers who have not yet learned this skill, and the more we will be capable of existing as a role model for them to follow!

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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