Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Telling the "New Story"

Our evolutionary home is wild nature. We did not evolve into the glorious, complex, talented, spiritual, athletic, introspective, loving, intelligent beings that we are, in this present world of our recent creation. My hands that play jazz with a strange blistering speed and accuracy, with melodic and rhythmic inventiveness, were the hands of toolmaker, communicator, creator, and lover, moving through a Pleistocene world much different from the stage of a jazz club where I sit before 88 finely tuned piano keys.

That I can play piano as I do is a testament to the demands of some provocatively rich world of gestured myth, tactile discernment, inventive manipulation, and sensual touch that was my nomadic past. That my hands can now express complex piano-driven imagination in this way has nothing to do with post-agricultural civilization and everything to do with the evolution of a nomadic predatory primate. That same bold and hairless human who roamed most of the earth in tribes, is the one who stepped into this modern world able to do miraculous things. The same hands that carved a small obsidian scraping blade 140,000 years ago could have learned to play a Chopin prelude, if those hands had rested upon a piano. We are not profoundly musical because we are so remarkably modern. We are the product of a complex set of evolutionary circumstances that we must now render visible. We must see that our prehistoric past is abundantly worthy of a careful scrutiny that probes with enough honesty to untangle the more subtle story of who actually stands before you in corporate attire. Minds and spirits just as brilliant as Einstein and King, compassionate warriors as brave and tenacious as Mother Teresa and Joan or Arc, also lived throughout the prehistoric eons of our nomadic ancestors, standing before breathtaking valleys, sleeping beneath carpets of night stars, and carrying their tribes’ wisdom to new levels of wonder and knowingness in the trials of life and the discourse of myth-making.

We humans are devoted storytellers. At first glance, it may seem that we tell stories purely for entertainment, but stories are a critical feature of how me make meaning of our lives. In fact, if you consider for a moment our unique capacity for speech and language, humans are constantly engaged in the recounting of narrative episodes, the sequencing of events, or the detailing of life as a chronology. Communication through language uses narrative sequences to convey thoughts from one person to another, no matter how simple the dialogue; “Hey, did you hear about the Lakers?” or “It’s looking like it might rain out,” or “I can’t believe I ran into you here!” Speaking involves words related to concepts that build ideas and communicate thoughts across time. There seems to be a budding storyline present in even the most basic speech. As Hogan (1997) notes, “all speech is patterned. Whenever we speak, we try to make a coherent statement, present a coherent narrative” (p. 237).

There are really two kinds of stories –the external ones that we tell orally or read, and the unconscious ones which we hold in our minds and which guide and sustain culture. According to the late historian Thomas Berry, for any group, “their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value.” While there have been a series of prevailing stories since the time of the Roman Empire, the narrative that has dominated human behavior over the past 250 years concerns the notion of human ‘progress.’ In this story, everything about human life is imagined to improve as humans advance scientific knowledge and build better machines. This is the narrative that has delivered us fully into the age of machines, and, more recently the era if computers. In spite of what tangible good this story has given us, our collective commitment to scientific progress as ‘improving’ the human condition is now widely seen as having jeopardized the viability of our biosphere and the very systems critical to sustaining human life. That story is no longer serving us. According to Barry, “the deepest crisis experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of the present situation” (p. xi). What New Story can we now tell about ourselves so as to move humanity forward?

Articulating the “New Story” of human history and culture, and outlining our collective movement towards a just and egalitarian future –a process already well underway- is a principal aim my current research and writing. Understanding our New Story will require a few things of us. It will be necessary to dance with numbers, to embrace vast stretches of time through analogy and symbol. Like someone who has suffered a sudden memory loss, we will have to believe that we have buried knowledge of times long ago, hidden stories of mythic proportion, a past waiting to be remembered. We will have to breath in vast timelines of human history that can awaken something already known and deeply felt, placing us squarely at the forefront of a personal line of hunter-gatherer ancestors. Such a vision could well mark us forever as a tribal men or women, full of glorious feelings and intuitions about our purpose, our gifts, our relationship to this earth and to all things living. We have come from the earth and no endless stretches of concrete, no 12,000-year detours into agricultural life, no Industrial myths of ‘progress’ nor patriarchal social structures can block this deeper knowing of our long heritage as nomadic tribal peoples living in and of wild nature. Once patience, trust, and intuition spark that first memory, we return from the amnesia and awaken to who we are. Then, with humor, grace, and tenacity, we build our future –one based on partnership, joy, kinship, and generosity. This is our future. We are the most creative and self-conscious creatures to walk the earth. We are the first animals to gain control over the viability of the biosphere, to hold the balance of the future in our very own hands. We are in the time of the Great Turning, and we will prevail over the destruction and darkness that we have wrought. This is the Great Promise of being human.

References Cited

Berry, Thomas The Dream of the Earth San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988.

Hogan, Patrick Colm, “Literary Universals.” 1997 Poetics Today, volume 18, no. 1, pp. 223-249.