After dinner the other night, a friend who’d recounted the rather impressive incompetence of the powers-that-be at his workplace said that he tried not to think about how messed up things are in the larger world beyond his 9 to 5, because when he got in touch with all that could go wrong, it terrified him.
I see his point, of course. If the course of events on a global scale were actually determined by the blind-spots and shortsightedness of individuals who – like those running my friend’s workplace – had been promoted to their level of incompetence, I doubt a single train would run on time.
Luckily for us, saving grace abounds. Most systems, even those as localized as a workplace, are equipped with wiggle room and other resilience factors that prevent any individual’s ineptitude from carrying the day. When you scale up to whole societies and transnational systems, the insulation tends to scale proportionately. Certain principles seem to be woven into the fabric of reality: things that have stood the test of time are likely to last, for instance. And all of this works to the advantage of life on earth despite the massive disregard, disability, and disingenous self-dealing that marks our public and private systems of order.
I told my friend that when I thought about all that could go wrong in the big world, I usually found myself in the opposite position: awestruck at how little of it actually comes to pass. I’m not minimizing a single one of our many social and environmental problems: a lot goes wrong – way too much of it due to human misdeeds – and the suffering it produces is deeply consequential. But enough goes right so that the deep desires of human beings can continue to be enacted: parents cherish their children; lovers revel in love; food is raised, cooked, and eaten; communities form, worship what they value most, and renew the legacy inherited from the past for the benefit of the future.
It’s been a super-busy time for me, getting two books out, traveling for work and much else. What do you let go of when it’s crunch time? For me it’s the news. You can read my reasons in the lines I wrote above. Collectively, the news as actually configured puts us in the state my wary friend described. A digest of any day’s headlines can be boiled down to two words: Watch out!
Are you scared yet?
I still get a glimpse of the news secondhand from my friends, of course. One friend has been following the selection of a new Pope with rapt attention. Yesterday news from the Vatican came in a puff of white smoke announcing the election of the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (the first non-European in 1200 years, although his parents were Italian, so the claim is perhaps a semi-technicality). He is said to be an austere individual who has spoken out for those suffering in poverty. He’s also an intense conservative, strongly supporting church policies on abortion, same-sex marriage and adoption, and the ordination of women, and often advocating for them in secular contexts. He rejects the liberation theology that embraces not just compassion for the poor but change in the conditions that produce poverty. There is talk that he was complicit (at least by remaining silent) along with others in the church hierarchy in the face of the Argentine dictatorship’s abuses.
The French have a saying, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (or in English, The more things change, the more they stay the same).
My friend’s interest is rooted in the fact that he was compelled to endure many years of Catholic-school education (although he is not Catholic). For me, his stories of beatings, humiliations, penalties and punishments seem more revealing than the inside-baseball reportage of hermetically sealed brocaded rooms, the baroque trappings of a system that designates a group of men who have eschewed the pleasures and challenges of ordinary life on earth to dictate key conditions shaping others’ lives. In exactly the same way, I choose stories of individual lives on the journey to freedom over the inside-baseball stories of – say – the sequester staged in DC. I defend both political and religious liberty without reservation: your worship is your choice, absolutely, as is your vote. But I feel no more obligation to genuflect to the backroom political dealings of religious power than to the secular trade in money and influence that has shaped this nation’s political realities nor to any other star-chamber system.
Instead, I want to keep my eyes and ears focused on the human-scale stories that sustain us, that provide an antidote to the fear that is the media’s stock in trade. This past weekend, I visited Bloomsburg, PA, to take part in the opening weekend of the Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble’s Flood Stories, Too, a play by former BTE member Jerry Stropnicky based on local people’s stories of the flood of 2011, which inundated a large number of homes (and thereby, lives). In the talk I gave after the Saturday matinee, I quoted my friend Dudley Cocke, artistic director of Roadside Theater in Appalachia, one project of Appalshop, the umbrella organization for a bunch of cultural projects centered in Whitesburg, Kentucky. I interviewed Dudley a few years ago for a long essay I wrote about the Thousand Kites Project, “a community-based performance, web, video and radio project centered on the United States prison system.” He talked about the importance of telling our own stories:
I always make the proposition that we are the storytelling animal and that language and story has been our selective advantage, and that’s why we’re still sitting here having espresso in the afternoon.
There have always been these contested narratives. If story is how we understand ourselves and understand the world, then there’s always going to be these contests of stories. If one just goes to a neutral mode and isn’t active in telling and trying to search for one’s own story individually and then in group, then somebody else will be there with a story and be there ready to tell your story within their story. It’s like a guy in Choteau, Montana – a dry land farmer – told me: “We got so much incoming. We want to send something out.”
In every community – in every nation, every faith community, every family, perhaps in every human heart – there is a contested narrative. The world being as full of possibility as it is, one side says, “Watch out! Be very afraid!” and encourages us to defer to those who want to shape our stories to serve their own interests. The other side says, “Tell your story. I’m listening and I know your story matters most when it is told in your own voice and words.” To me, this is the meta-question of our moment. If we stop cooperating with the fearmongers’ directives, then change in structures of consolidated power – religious or secular – become much more possible to imagine, and once imagined, to enact.
I spoke to (or eavesdropped on) quite a few audience members in Bloomsburg after the two performances of Flood Stories, Too that I witnessed. Every comment supported the deep truth that enables me to take a break from the canned news that broadcasts from the center to the margins of our society, addicting us to the precise wave-length of anxiety that serves its operators. Those comments confirmed my impression that BTE members, like so many dedicated community-based artists I know, fit the description I shared in my talk at Bloomsburg University: they embody “the sacred trust of returning a community’s own stories to its members in a form they can use.” Not a form that will scare them into buying products or waiting for authoritative orders. Not a form that will reinforce the might and right to rule of the powerful. But a form that says that our stories matter, that the way we shape our stories shapes our lives, and that we possess the power to write those stories for ourselves.
Spring is peaking here. I walked by the Bay today listening to a great cut from The Audience With Betty Carter, a medley of “Can’t We Talk It Over” and “Either It’s Love Or It Isn’t,” which fit my subject to a T. But YouTube disappointed me. Still, how can you go wrong with “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most”?