Does asking ‘when’ distract us from juicier questions?

Old-New-storyWhen I first started giving talks using the lens of “old story – new story,” I would illustrate my points with examples. Old story is factory farms, mountaintop removal coal mining, clear-cutting forests, Peak Oil, suburban sprawl. New story is organic farming, renewable energy, selective logging, urban agriculture, Net-Zero building, intentional community. I tried to tease out the stories behind them, the contrasting worldviews at the core of these choices. I would say that the world we live in is created by stories of who we are and why we are here.

Several years ago after one of these lectures, a student asked a question that I think about often. Students have a knack for this. At my first teaching job in 1988, a freshman architecture student asked me if the Greeks thought of themselves as “modern.” It was a humbling and exciting moment in which I hoped any knowledge I might be able to impart would not interfere with his ability to ask such juicy questions. This time, the student wanted to know when all this begin, this shift to the modern worldview, the Story of Separation that produces the world we live in today. He asked, When did we start thinking this way?

At the time, it seemed like an excellent question. I didn’t pretend to know, but hazarded a guess based on the bits of history I’d absorbed by then. My answer was colored by Karen Armstrong’s history of the emergence of the three world religions during the Axial Age in The Great Turning, Riane Eisler’s look at the suppression of the Divine Feminine in The Chalice and the Blade and her brilliant exploration of caring economics in The Real Wealth of Nations, even the books of Daniel Quinn that pin our separation on the birth of agriculture. I speculated that it had to have been before the Greeks and Romans, but how can we really know if this important pivot took place as long as 10,000 years ago?

Since then, Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress and Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus have helped to round out the picture of a change that began in prehistory and continued unfolding over millennia. I’ve come to believe that asking “when,” while interesting, is unnecessary. This is not because it can’t be answered definitively, though I am willing to admit that my view reflects a bias towards present awareness and future orientation over historical analysis. I’m simply more interested in the impulse behind asking such a question than in any answer that tries to nail it down.

I have to wonder whether knowing “when” would give us answers we currently do not have. Hildy Gottlieb observes that when we over-analyze a problem, we are essentially flogging it for answers and asking questions that distract from creative engagement in solutions. It’s like trying to drive somewhere new while looking in the rear-view mirror. It also reminds me of therapy that emphasizes extensive analysis of one’s childhood. Aside from being incredibly time consuming and expensive, I’m not sure it works better than practices to understand and redirect habits of mind that keep me stuck.

I’m happy to concede that some insights are gained from asking “when.” Ronald Wright’s book definitely did that for me. As did Armstrong’s look at a huge sweep of time, examining the impulses and events behind the emergence of the Golden Rule religions under vastly different circumstances. The fascinating thing is that they all had at base the desire to alleviate human suffering and came up with similar solutions.

I do believe in the wise caution that those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it. Given all the crises in the world at this point, between ISIS and climate change, I would argue that identifying this ideological paradigm, this Story of Separation and how it operates in our culture, how it grips us in every possible way, is a more compelling and fruitful undertaking than asking “when.” It leads us to juicy questions like how do we want to live, looking forward rather than backward, turning to each other for collaborative responses, and reconnecting with the living world so full of its own timeless stories.

4 thoughts on “Does asking ‘when’ distract us from juicier questions?

  1. I agree that asking when might not help us much and I also agree that asking how the old stories came into existence is very important. I do a session on the food system and food justice each semester in my friend’s critical thinking class. Inevitably we get to how we got into the mess we are in now. I explain the roles of government and big business in creating our current system using the science of the day to justify decisions.

    We talk about ways we can bring about change within our own communities instead of waiting for government/business to do it for us with laws, policies and so on.

    I am amazed how uninformed and powerless the students feel going in and how energized they feel after just the one session. Some have gone on to start community gardens, become advocates for food justice or do the simplest step of changing their own eating habits.

    Keep on Growing,

    • Great story, Duane! Yes, I’m a firm believer in the power of examples. Once people see what’s possible when coming from a different perspective, they lose interest in analysis and instead give in to the urge to build that new reality that makes the old one obsolete (to quote Bucky Fuller). Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Knowing when does give us an indication of how deeply ingrained the separation issue is in the dominant culture, but your right it only leads to further questions.

    Any thoughts on David Abram’s view that written language is part of the separation?

    • Good point, Marcus. Your question about language reminds me of how fun it is to engage in intellectual inquiry on these topics. As much as I enjoy study and learning, I’m also aware of the temptation to think my way into understanding. Or to believe that, if I can just master this concept—say, how language contributed to the story of separation—I’ll be enlightened and know what to do next. And yet, the experiences I’ve had encountering other beings in wild nature have taught me things I can’t learn in books or intellectual discussions. We are so good at the life of mind, I guess what I’m endorsing is to get out of our comfort zone and explore the world around us from a feeling place, rather than a thinking one. That said, Dave is one who has a foot firmly in both camps. An intellectual who appreciates magic and wildness. Today’s post touches on this and there is more coming.

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