The Stories We Tell

Recently I have been reflecting on the contrast between the rational side of the way our minds work and the more mythic or story-based side. While modernity strongly favors science and the rational mind as the primary source of worthwhile knowledge, I would like to spend some time reflecting on the power and relevance of stories.

While this topic may seem to be unrelated to the overarching subject of Shmita that is the focus of this blog, it is by means of stories that we transmit our values and the nature of our relationships with other people and the world around us. Shmita seeks to guide and shape those relationships, and so, uneasily, because there are few actual “stories” that include Shmita as an aspect, these two topics do intersect.

When we think of storytelling, what do we think of? What are some examples of the stories that animate our behavior? Depending on who we are, we may think of the stories we find in Torah (they are stories, after all. Clearly for the Author of Torah, storytelling was an important medium by which to communicate in a way that was sure to hold its relevance over a time frame that has so far extended thousands of years). We may think of fairy tales. We may think of the life stories of our political or social heroes.

I’d like to include some of the other forms of story that fade into myth. This week I read an article published in Indian Country Today that argues in favor of listening to the stories of indigenous peoples about their social norms, and particularly the stories they tell about how they should and should not relate to the wild world that surrounds them.  It focuses on indigenous Amazonian storytellers, whose wisdom guided social norms with respect to use of the area’s natural resources long before Europeans introduced different, exploitation-based economic models into their system. Their stories about how to fish from the enchanted lakes reflect values (such as take what you need for your family’s use and no more or you’ll be punished)  and what place is sacred and needs to be avoided completely to ensure long-lasting abundance of wildlife to sustain a healthy ecosystem (modern scientists have found this to be a biodiversity hotspot) that are nearly lost to modernity, and are only recently being re-discovered through modern biological study and resource management practices.

The resiliency of oral history and storytelling as a mode of transmission of important information can be gleaned from the almost incredible discovery that Australian aboriginals hold a 10,000 year long collective memory about the geography of the place they call home, recalling place names and locations of land that has long ago sunk below rising seas, but which can now be found and identified with modern methods of analyzing the sea floor.

What if we were to seek out this indigenous knowledge – not only about what exists, but also about how to transmit cultural norms that are deeply interwoven with these landscapes. What if we listened, really listened, and brought our scientific and our mythic minds to bear on addressing the questions of how to live on the earth and with one another? Will the stories of our day all be cautionary tales, about how this moment was used incorrectly, and the consequences? Or can we still take up the strands of knowledge that are around us and create resilient, enduring, and deeply “true” stories about the relationship of human beings and the earth, to guide our practices, and our deeper sense of who we are?  What would that type of storytelling look in the modern day? How can it be borne into existence?

As we develop experience living with Shmita and its conceptual offspring, the stories we tell to ourselves about what that experience has been will begin to form the basis of a new and enriched world, in which people long for and more deeply understand the meanings and possibilities of their own lives.