During the recent fall break I took my family to my native Germany and in its capital we visited some of the monuments and museums: the Holocaust monument, the Berlin wall, the exhibition on the ‘topology of terror’ about the ascent and fall of the Nazis, the Stasi museum (in the former building of the Ministry of State Security). The subsequent trip to Dresden illustrated the development from a hotspot of culture and enlightenment to complete destruction, reconstruction and today a tourist hot spot combined with one of the highest percentages of far right wing votes at the recent general elections.
As I had read Harari’s ‘Sapiens’ recently I got reminded of the distinctive ability of human beings to make up stories. Human beings create stories to make sense of the world around them and to orchestrate collaboration and followership. Such stories include the nation states, religion, money or a stock of a publicly traded company. Remember that there were times when humanity believed that the world was flat; then there was the story that the sun was turning around the world and that the earth was the center of universe. Galileo Galilei is quoted: ‘there can not be two truths that contradict each other’. Hence the challenge is to distinguish the story from the truth. The mere fact that many people follow the same story doesn’t make it true yet.
The above mentioned monuments and museums document how some of the German stories went terribly wrong and today they lie in the garbage bin of history while they still weigh heavily on the consciousness of the following generations. However, back then, many people believed in the stories, about races, about religion, about superiority, about nationalism or communism. In two different Berlin museums we listened to original voices of a Gestapo officer and of an officer of GDR’s Stasi respectively (secret service); they used almost the same words to tell their story about enemies of the country and that ‘it is a noble duty for the employees/spies to search, find and eliminate thoughts and cells of resistance.’ Similar speeches were given to schools and youth organizations (Hitlerjugend or FDJ respectively). Propaganda is a form of story telling.
Our inclination towards stories is human, we love stories, in particular those that foster belonging and identity, stories that create emotions. In fact, neuro-biologically we are wired for stories. Where it gets tricky, though, is when our stories conflict with other people’s stories, and where it gets dangerous is when we get attached to our own story, look at it as the truth and try to make other people’s story wrong. If you listen to today’s daily news you will hear many stories conflicting with other stories and where the most probably outcome will be some winners and some losers. And none of the two stories is anywhere close to represent the truth.
So, my questions to you are:
- what are some prominent stories in your mind today? (about others, different cultures, religions, about HQ, professions, sports clubs etc)
- are you aware that they are ‘just’ stories and not universal truths?
- how attached are you to these stories?
- do the stories involve other people that are wrong (in your mind)?
- what are the stories about yourself? about being better than others? or not being good enough?
- what would it take to let go of this story?
- can you create a story that will allow you to accept the other person’s point of view? one that creates a space for dialogue and understanding?
Harari makes the case in his book that the currently dominant stories in the world are around the nation state and consumerism. And he also argues that the attachment to these stories will lead humanity into a catastrophe.
The world needs a new story, one of compassion with our neighbours, of respect for nature, of connection rather than segregation. Don’t get mad, get curious.. It will still (just) be a story, however, it might be closer to our human nature.