3. The Grandest Tale: Our One True Superpower
Superman has X ray vision. The Hulk, uncanny strength. And Humans, well, we have stories. And while that may sound slightly unimpressive at first, a quick look back at the history of our species illustrates the immense power of a well spun narrative. As the historian Yuval Harari spelt out in his seminal book Sapiens, the ability to tell stories was perhaps the major catalyst in our transformation from a relatively vulnerable savannah ape, into an organism that would go on to completely rewrite the rules of the food chain. Our creation of both oral and written cultures, and the cooperative team work which they enabled, unshackled us from the glacial pace of genetic evolution and propelled us into the modern age.
This ability to construct narrative is more than just a skill we’ve managed to master, it’s become our very means of interpreting reality. Similar to our instinct for learning language, researchers have observed an almost universal inclination in children for absorbing and creating narrative. And our personal identities can be seen as the most intricate stories of all, as each of our memories, dreams, relationships and even our very sense of self are all a form of narrative, elaborate fictions that we keep telling ourselves because we believe, often subconsciously, that they are somehow in our best interest. Our political and economic beliefs, and the elaborate systems that they underpin are all equally fictitious, each ceasing to exist the minute we stop believing in them.
But whether the stories that shape our society are objectively verifiable or not is of little consequence, as what really matters, is that we act as if they were true. Which means that the effective story teller is truly the most powerful agent in human society. And with the majority of the worlds population now reachable online, the power of a well spun tale is greater than ever. So if we wish to see change in the world we need to start rewriting our cultural script, to begin constructing transformational new narratives that appeal to our noblest selves and encourage us to keep our more selfish desires in check. As Terrence McKenna put it, ‘if you’re not the hero of your own novel, then what kind of novel is it? You need to do some heavy editing.’ 15 And right now, in regards to acting as custodians that maintain the conditions for complex life to flourish on Earth, our modern culture is far more villainous than it is heroic.
But before we can rewrite our collective script, we first need to get clear on exactly which narratives are currently playing out. As while the grand stories of the day underpin virtually every aspect of our modern lives, they can often hide in plain sight, behind a veneer of what is generally considered as either ‘accepted truth’ or ‘common sense’. We tend to have a blindspot regarding the baseline assumptions of our mother culture, which can make it challenging for us to conceive of wholly new ways of living, especially when all we’re familiar with are the narratives with which we were raised. So before exploring some of the promising new stories that are starting to emerge, let’s first gain a deeper understanding of the narratives that brought us to where we are today.