We need stories to guide us, especially in an emergency


“It’s not easy to be patient in an emergency.” ~ Wendell Berry

What is this hold our cultural stories have over us? Even when many of us know the dominant narratives are misguided, damaging, even destructive, we cling to loyalty and feel a terrible sluggishness to act. Like those dreams where something horrible is about to happen and your feet are glued to the ground, or you can’t move your limbs, or have no voice to scream.

Stories exert a powerful magic. Shawn Coyne’s new book, “The Story Grid,” talks about the classic form of the quest story, also called the hero’s journey. It’s an integral part of our humanity, with us since at least the Greeks. Coyne observes that stories give us guidance, models to follow in times of change, and help us temper our anxieties about the unknown. He illustrates with this observation from the book, “The Examined Life,” by psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz:

“We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even—or perhaps especially–in an emergency.”

Even dystopian stories temper our anxieties in a perverse sort of way by giving us a comparison that says something like: “You think times are bad now? At least it’s not as dire as ‘The Road’ or ‘The Walking Dead.’” I’ve written before about my frustration with dystopian stories. I think we are stuck in this limbo because there is a severe shortage of compelling stories to guide us in a different direction.

To contrast decisiveness with paralysis, Grosz tells the story of Marissa Panigrosso, who worked on the 98th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. As soon as the plane hit the North Tower, she headed straight for the fire exit, not even stopping at her desk to get her purse. No hesitation. By contrast, some of her co-workers went into a regularly scheduled meeting as if nothing was amiss. Others were bustling about in confusion, but not taking action.

This is a perfect metaphor for the various responses to the current “emergency” of our old cultural stories breaking down. Out of a hundred people, one is running like hell in the opposite direction, despite having no idea what lies ahead. A few more have frozen in panic. A small handful is denying with such vigor, the signs are invisible to them. All the rest are carrying on with business as usual, albeit with a deeply unsettled feeling about the changed circumstances.

This is where compelling stories can make such a difference. Coyne writes:

“How we are convinced finally to change is by hearing stories of other people who risked and triumphed. Not some easy triumph, either. But a hard fought one that takes every ounce of the protagonist’s inner fortitude.”

I find this fascinating, the psychology of our response to emergency situations, and the role of story in showing alternatives. It’s human nature to cling to familiar stories and resist stepping out, even when we know that the old way is broken and crumbling around us. Until we know where we’re going, we won’t budge. Or we will try to tinker around the edges of the old story, hoping that with a little lipstick, this pig will be transformed. In the green architecture world, this is known as “being less bad.” It’s the equivalent of anxiously going into a meeting instead of heading for the exits.

This presents a challenge. I do not have the hubris to claim that I know where we should go. What I’ve been doing for a while now is sharing promising examples, pointing out ideas, painting pictures of how things could be. I’m inspired to tell the stories of people who are making those changes, taking risks, and leaving the old narratives behind, come what  may.

After many years of trying to carry on with business as usual while tinkering around the edges, I have now headed for the fire exit. It’s smoky and not well lit. The passage from Grosz’s book helps me to understand why I have so few fellow travelers. Not many people have the stomach for this threshold between stories, this staircase going down 98 levels to who knows what at the bottom.

We who have either ejected ourselves from the old stories or been forcibly ejected, we are outsiders. Misfits. Sure, we have our art, our philosophy, our healing practices, our music, activism, farming, shamanic journeying, and longings. Our service. No, we are not idle; we are actively leaving a burning building. The long journey down should give us some time to imagine what we may encounter when we emerge back into the light.

One thought on “We need stories to guide us, especially in an emergency

  1. We are the light at the bottom of the stairs, Julie. Creating the place from which to welcome those who choose to take the risk and head down those dark smokey stairs.

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