I like to think myself cultured, and this means I check the news and have opinions on it, and I read books, both old and new.
One of the books I’m reading is The Seven Basic Plots, a tome attempting to not only condense stories into their seven archetypal plots, but to answer why we tell stories in the first place. Coupling this book with the daily news, which disseminates content by telling stories, drives me to an exercise less about identifying plots and more about identifying wants and needs.
Stories, of course, begin with these wants and these needs. A man needs to get home from war: we have The Odyssey. A woman wants a loving, exciting relationship. Anna Karenina. A man wants to catch the white whale. Moby Dick.
What do the news stories say about us? What is our collective story based on the headlines?
Many of the headlines are about power, and who has it and who doesn’t. Underneath this, however, and coinciding with the stratification of politics and society, is a constant need to say who aligns with who.
For thousands of years, two primary factors have helped us understand who aligns with who: religion and proximity. The former rooted a person in a specific story, with a specific understanding of what’s gone wrong and how to overcome it. Christianity points to original sin and the need for redemption. Buddhism points to our ceaseless wanting and the need to overcome it by detachment. Religion gives its adherents practices to embody, and these practices both reinforce the story and bind the adherents together.
Proximity, or better, community – whether via religion, the state, the family, or all three – gives people a chance to see themselves in the whole. Again, in the frame of story, my gifts complement the character next to me, whether brother or wife or neighbor, as we work together for the common good. This common good often meant taking up arms against the city nearby coming to attack, or sharing our bounty because we’ll need someone to share with us next year. Communities had a common destiny: what I did affected what would happen to you.
Over the second half of the 20th century, these longstanding edifices finally crumbled. They had been tottering for some time. Religion dutifully exited the public square, both pushed out and willingly setting up its own bookstores and culture apart from the mainstream, and ended reduced to the realm of personal piety.
With rising incomes and insurance, we no longer have a common destiny with our neighbors. Accompany this with advances in technology and travel, and Americans are more transient than ever – and even less bound to their neighbors and a common destiny. We are half a continent away from our families, and even the glue of water-cooler gossip has weakened as teammates work from homes thousands of miles away.
Not that I am a Luddite, or too much of one. I like the ability to occasionally work from home. Water cooler communities were only ever the few small bricks holding this idea of a shared destiny together, anyway. They were signs of its imminent collapse.
Yet, these changes lead us to where we are today: self-formed communities based on overlap of our own personalized, individual “good.” We identify with those who identify with us and form communities as a result. This leads to the rise of identify politics – self formed communities based on identity. Identity politics have and are serving a purpose when they give voice to the voiceless. Nonetheless, self-forming communities lack the diversity and resilience of those old-time communities that religion and proximity could create, especially with the shared destinies they provided.
Today, if my neighbor goes hungry, what is that to me? This is a new phenomenon in the world.
The deeper spiritual malady behind such self-formed communities is that they lack resilience and are ever-changing. We don’t have shared stories, and when we lose our shared stories we actually lose our foundation, our roots. We don’t understand where to go or what to do: how to live out our stories.
We don’t know who we are.
This is why our news stories are hyper-focused today on who aligns with who. We lack identity. We need to know with whom we align so we can know who we are. What is our shared outcome. To put it another way, society most longs for that which it most lacks. Like a group of hikers on trail too long who cannot stop talking about cheeseburgers and pie, we cannot stop talking about who we are because we have no idea.