In Salman Rushdie’s novel, “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” a small boy, his father, and a band of unusual characters strive to save the mythic Sea of Stories from destruction by shadowy creatures spreading pollution and silence upon an inherently creative world. The antagonists seek to convert heroes into demons, love into hate, and triumph into tragedy by converting life-affirming stories into their shadowy opposites. Haroun learns that the stories we tell are more than just bedtime comfort or simple entertainments; they become the reality we experience. Stories matter because they not only describe reality, they shape it.
History is defined by the stories we create about crisis events. We tend to share stories that are broadly acceptable, stripping out the parts that are divisive and rewriting history to appear simpler and more inevitable than the events were at the time. How do we capture, however, messy events with no clear antagonist, with complex characters and situations that cannot be easily analyzed or understood? And what do we do when we are characters in the stories we hope to tell, describing a plot that is still unfolding, moving toward an ending we cannot foresee?
Consider our current economic environment, a place where multiple narratives jockey for position to define both our challenges and the appropriate solutions. We have identified a few of the narratives we often hear about our current economic crisis:
The “Evil Wall Street” Narrative
Greedy, clever bankers conspired to create a housing bubble so that they could steal the wealth of hard-working Americans who did nothing wrong but pursue the American dream. The bankers’ friends in government protect the bankers so that they can garner campaign contributions and other favors. The entire financial system works against ordinary people. The system is corrupt and cannot be trusted.
The “Lazy/Stupid Consumer” Narrative
Dumb people made lousy personal decisions because they are greedy and do not believe in hard work or accept personal responsibility. They ran up credit cards in a hedonistic spending frenzy and bought homes they cannot afford. Anyone in financial turmoil deserves what they have gotten. We need more regulation to protect people from themselves or less regulation so that people can suffer for and learn from their own mistakes.
The “Big Brother” Narrative
Unpatriotic, bumbling bureaucrats are maliciously undermining our culture and value system by manipulating policies, restricting free enterprise, and cultivating a culture of dependence. Our own government has become our greatest enemy and must be stopped before it is too late. Big bad government sowed the seeds of this economic crisis and their actions since have only made it worse.
The “Our Best Days Are Past” Narrative
We used to be a country of innovative entrepreneurs and hard-working citizens hungry to make better lives for themselves and their children, but no longer. We have lost our hunger, our edge, our desire to be great. We live off the wealth and achievements of the past while borrowing against our children’s future. We have passed the torch of global economic and political leadership to other nations.
The “[Rich or Poor] People are to Blame” Narrative [select adjective of your choice]
America has become a nation of [rich or poor] people who exploit the rest of us, taking advantage of entitlements to support their lifestyles to the detriment of hard-working Americans. The [rich or poor] people are like parasites that take and give nothing in return. Congress panders to them, bailing them out of their own mistakes, when Congress should be helping people like me, who is not [rich or poor], but middle class.
Unfortunately, these narratives and the many others that permeate our collective consciousness can now easily be traced to specific pundits and media outlets. While an ideological media is not new, we now can use social media to so isolate ourselves in ideologically homogenous thought groups. Ironically, the deluge of data and opinion to which we are exposed makes it even easier to select to attend to only the data and opinions with which we agree. We can gather information, hear its analysis, even fact-check our evidence without ever having to listen to a dissenting voice, read a contradictory study, or learn a complicating fact. We need not expose ourselves to information that might challenge our thinking, provide nuance to our judgments, or ultimately improve the quality of our conclusions.
Because of this lack of rigorous intellectual discourse, the narratives described above fail to prove useful in accurately describing our situation and cannot offer meaningful solutions to the intense economic, social, political, and moral challenges we face. The stories might include shards of truth; not one of them, however, is remotely worthy of the challenge at hand.
An alternate narrative is required for the challenges we face as a country, a narrative that focuses on what each of us can do to move us forward. It would be less a narrative of declarative statements and more a narrative built around self-reflective questions. There would be less blaming of others and more accountability for ourselves. Perhaps we could call it the “What am I doing about it?” Narrative. It might go like this:
The “What Am I Doing About It?” Narrative
What am I doing to take personal responsibility for my financial situation? How am I helping serve my community, particularly those most in need? What types of businesses am I supporting and do they reflect my values? How am I contributing to society by making healthy decisions? How am I helping raise and educate the next generation? How am I educating myself for a changing world? How am I helping my company/clients/customers/colleagues be more productive and successful? How am I caring for my children? How am I gleaning the wisdom and experience of those who came before me? What risks am I willing to take so that we can more forward? How am I creating a positive ethos in my family? Workplace? Community? What is my role in this story? Will the world be better because I am here? How?
We all can control the stories we listen to and the stories we tell. Most importantly, we all can choose to consciously tell a narrative by living the way we do. Our very actions every day reveal the real story of our lives, reflect the real values by which we live. And those actions cannot be taken away by an economic crisis of any magnitude; indeed, it is in times of crisis that our actions are most important and reveal our nature.
New York Times columnist David Bornstein recently quoted his partner in journalistic excellence, Walter Lippmann, on the power of story. Lippmann wrote that, “The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do.”
What kind of world are we brave enough to imagine in our heart of hearts? What are we willing to do to make that world a reality? What stories do we tell? Which ones do we listen to? What stories do our lives embody? And most importantly, what stories will those who come after us tell about the decisions we made, the actions we took, the lives we lead.
There is a reason it is called “character.”