The stories we believe about the world are powerful. Even if you don’t notice it, we all walk around being guided by the things that we believe to be true. You see it after a mass shooting, when gun enthusiasts take to Twitter and the news to defend their second amendment rights, because despite the fact that the constitution is merely a piece of paper drafted two hundred years ago in a completely different time, and despite the fact that every other developed country in the world manages to avoid mass shootings by banning guns in 99% of cases, they believe that this is how the world works. I get to keep my gun because a piece of paper says so. That’s the story I believe about my rights as a person, and no matter what, I can’t concede that things could be different, because to me, they can’t. They won’t. It’s not just that I want to keep my gun, but that there will always be guns, because the world is full of personal weapons and bulletproof backpacks. That’s the world. That’s the story. This is how it all works.
The past few years have been full of shake-ups, where we have had to rewrite what we believe to be true about the world. We believe we are in a world where genocidal rhetoric is behind us, until Trump incites violence with the same language that dictators from eighty years ago spouted with abandon. We have to work our minds around this new information, around a planet where the Trumps of the world still appeal. The world I lived in loved Europe – loved the freedom to travel and live and love across a swathe of different countries, loved the sense of broader community, appreciated a world that was not homogenous when it came to skin, language and background. But then Brexit happened and I had to rework that part in my head, to try to understand the world I was actually living in, rather than the one I thought I was living in.
Things are not good. Sure, in some sense, things are better than ever; we are living longer, living healthier lives, richer overall and it has probably never been a better time to be a woman, to be a person of colour, to be gay or trans. That doesn’t mean it is good yet, but it would likely have been worse fifty years ago. In that sense, things are okay. But anyone who is awake to the world can see that things are not okay – and we are all crying out for a path to somewhere better.
I have read a lot about economics this year, and it is clear how much we have built our economies, our countries, on the search for endless growth. Growth is progress, growth is success – but of course, that’s just the story we’ve told ourselves. In Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics, she chronicles the difficulties modern economists have in challenging this entrenched economic thinking, in questioning the deeply held belief that growth is the point. This is what people believe to be true, and to question that is to question everything – the point of their careers, the point of the planet, the point of life itself. Curiosity is always positioned as a good human trait, but as we barrel toward environmental collapse, I realise that that is probably not true. It is curiosity that leads us to decimate other cultures and natural resources, it is curiosity that leads us to take planes across the world even though it spews carbon to do so and it is curiosity that leads us to endlessly push, build and explore with no thought to the human or natural consequences. We believe that curiosity is good, and that to stay still, to not move forward, is bad. But what if we are wrong? What if that story needs rewriting?
As I get older, I form my own stories about the world, about the purpose of work and family and love. We need stories to guide us. Without a set of principles to help us understand how this apathetic hunk of rock is best experienced, we become lost. What work should I do? What matters? Who am I? That’s why religion is so powerful for many, and why for others work has begun to fill the role of God. It seems like we thrive with something to worship, when we have something that we can confidently say is more important than everything else.
But our stories are getting old. I know Christians who now bump up against the Bible’s rigidity, or who can only keep their faith by keeping the belief but dropping much of the scripture and the traditions. I know people who believe that their corporate 9-5 is of the utmost importance, because doing so gets them up every morning, even though the truth is that if they stopped working today the world would continue to turn as before, because ultimately, it doesn’t matter. We are railing against the stories we’ve been told about the meaning of work, the meaning of marriage, the meaning of life. I will likely get married, but it will be an atheist, non-traditional affair, and I already wrestle with what an event that was entirely a tradition looks like devoid of all those elements. I need to write my own story about marriage and about the making of a commitment. You see why it is easy for people to follow the script.
It seems fractured to talk about guns and weddings and economics in a single blog post – and it is. I have just been so struck recently by the power of the stories we tell ourselves; by the beliefs we treat as facts that end up defining our choices, and by extension, our lives. I get into scrapes over the point of things, the point of work and money and friendship and leisure. People become so defensive when you question their stories, because you’re really questioning the meaning they give their lives. The world is only what we believe it to be.
But the Earth is dying and we need a new way of understanding ourselves. The old way placed work, growth, money and power on a pedestal, which has resulted in epic inequality and a rapidly degrading environment. It’s not working anymore. You see how unhappy most people are; people who live incredible lives, making money, travelling, healthy and wealthy in powerful, stable countries, and yet most of them are plagued by insecurities. We need to write the next chapter differently. We need to prioritise a world that is sustainable in every sense of the word. We need to understand why people believe that the problem is immigrants, or socialists, or gay people, and help them redraw lines that include dignity for everyone, including those left behind as the world turns the page. We are at a crisis point, politically and climatically. We need to look at the next blank page and start to write the story of a better world, one that keeps our natural resources safe, provides justice, dignity and care to all, and prioritises wellbeing – if not outright happiness – ahead of soulless, cold, empty growth for the sake of expansion, for the sake of being there.
The beauty of the world is that, right now, there is always another day to pick up the pen. Let’s turn the page and get to work.