Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lives Are No Longer Feeling Like Stories

I came across Douglas Coupland’s latest project – to “try and isolate what is already different in the twenty-first century mind as opposed to the twentieth.” – from my friend Steve Taylor (a kiwi living in Australia).  I have always found Coupland to be an interesting observer of culture. Of his ‘Slogans for the Twenty-first Century,’ the one that strikes me most is: LIVES ARE NO LONGER FEELING LIKE STORIES.

Here are my reflections:

My generation saw the failure of the dominant meta-narratives of our cultures – the American Dream; post-Empire Britain as still the greatest nation; etc. – and responded by making a couple of moves. We stepped-out of those meta-narratives on a long-term basis; and we constructed small, personal stories that did not connect with meta-narratives (in this sense, they were, ironically, more heroic – and doomed to failure – than we knew).

The following generation saw the first move as opting-out, and the second as creating and offering a very far from desirable alternative. Gen X watched metaphorical skyscrapers fall (long before we watched the Twin Towers collapse) and lived in post-apocalyptic shanty towns. Gen Y wonders why we settle for that (trauma is why), and set out to rebuild. Some, to rebuild skyscrapers – we have a cultural tendency to reject the values of the generation before us, and to co-opt (not return to) the values of the generation before them (for example, British PM David Cameron co-opts the values of the generation that rebuilt Britain after WWII – though I can’t imagine the NHS coming into existence on his watch). (We could describe it in this way: as the structures of one generation falls, the following generation stays away from the unstable building because it is dangerous, while the next generation returns to the settled ruins to claim anything they can plunder.) Others, to rebuild on a smaller, more human scale – there are signs of reclaiming family life.

So we have three surviving generations for whom lives are no longer feeling like stories: Boomers, because their stories (e.g. we get more and more wealthy through time) have fallen; X-ers, because over time the (metaphorical) poverty of (metaphorical) shanty-towns takes its toll on the human spirit; and Gen-Y, because stories feels like escapism (and money and celebrity status like a better escapism).

Here’s the thing: we are embedded in story – in several stories simultaneously – whether we are aware of it or not. Story is the medium we move in, breath in, just as water is the medium fish move and breath in.

I find my story within the Story that is told in the Bible. And within that Story, the way in which stories are inhabited is instructional to me. The Old Testament, in the form in which it comes down to us, was very largely shaped while the people were living in exile in Babylon – a culture built on a very different story from their own. Within this context, they needed to tell their story – indeed, to rediscover their story, for they had forgotten it (which is how and why they ended up in exile in the first place), and then to tell it, over and over, so that it shaped their own lives as they lived them out in a particular (and hostile) place and time. For them, story was not escapism: it taught them how to live; how to make sense of present circumstances which, on the surface, made no sense; and what to hope for.

This is what story looked like. They lived within the Babylonian story. But they took one day in every seven to remind themselves of their own story. That is, unlike Gen-X, they didn’t remove themselves from a story they found to be false (indeed, God told them to embed themselves in that society and to seek to bless it), but guarded moments to ‘step out’ in order to evaluate that story in the light of their own.

Lives don’t feel like stories, whether stories we write for ourselves as Masters of our own Destiny, or stories written for us by others who have power over our lives. Life is too hard, and too real, and too demanding, and too fast, and too overwhelming, and too randomly violent, and too short to be a series of stories. That is why we micro-story: Facebook statuses and twitter updates. (That is, perhaps, why I am writing blog posts of increasing length, rather than micro-blogging?)

And that is precisely why I feel the weight of the forgotten Story.

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