HOW STORIES GUIDE OUR LIVES In the opening paragraph of her book The Faraway Nearby author Rebecca Solnit writes that “stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.”
Humans are a story-telling species. The stories we tell ourselves and each other guide how we live in and relate to the world. They are the social technology through which we make sense of the world and give meaning to our lived experiences. Like the mycelium that runs below our feet, stories are everywhere, threading and reshaping our reality, even if we don’t see them.
I studied international business. And like most higher education studies, mine came with a story. A constructed narrative that told us what is important, how the economy works, what the purpose of business is, and what is worth pursuing in life. Like most stories, mine also had its heroes. Tech entrepreneurs were elevated to role models, geniuses who single-handedly hacked the market and made a fortune doing so. According to this story, success is defined by virtue of status, wealth, and material ownership.
When stories are so profoundly rooted in our collective unconscious, we often don’t subject them to deeper questioning. We accept them as normal and see them as reality. And because stories, like waves, drift between us, we risk becoming mere floating flasks, carrying messages that aren’t our own, lost at sea without a clear destination. As Solnit poignantly describes: “We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or be seen. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then become a story-teller.”
My intention is not to convince you which stories are good and which are bad. Rather, I want to show that when one story dominates, it risks exterminating others or doesn’t do justice to the reality it presumes to narrate. Storytelling, like ecosystems, needs diversity to thrive. And since stories have a direct impact on reality — to the point that we often mistake one for the other — we need to tell stories that enliven, provide solace, and inspire collective action in a dying world.
ENLIVENING STORIES — BELONGING IN A BREATHING WORLD A story must be judged according to whether it makes sense. And 'making sense' must be here understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses. A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and the ears to their real surroundings, tuning the tongue to the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin. To make sense is to release the body from the constraints imposed by outworn ways of speaking, and hence to renew and rejuvenate one's felt awareness of the world. It is to make the senses wake up to where they are.
— David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
Soon after my graduation, I traveled to South America, drawn by its rich history and diverse but often conflicting cosmologies. Before European colonization and the genocides colonizers inflicted, animism was — and continues to be among many indigenous peoples — the central story by which people made sense of the world. In animism, the whole world is perceived as an animate being and a living entity. The mountains, rocks, rivers, trees, and birds are not inert and dead matter, but just like humans, persons who are awake and alive, both matter and spirit. Animists recognize that humans are deeply entangled with the web of life. Our moral duty as humans, then, is to be careful stewards of this complex web of relationships that sustains life. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram describes the role of stories among the native Koyukon people in making explicit and strengthening the moral bonds between humans and the more-than-human world:
“The telling of Distant Time stories is central to the Koyukon way of life…By describing the emergence of the world into its evident form, and by thus articulating the formal relations that exist between the various entities in the enveloping cosmos … the Distant Time stories make explicit the proper etiquette that must be maintained by the Koyukon people when dealing with the diverse presences that surround them, the kinships that must be celebrated, and the taboos that must be respected if the human community and the land are to support and sustain one another.”
In animistic oral cultures, stories are living conversations between all persons, rooted in the enveloping landscape. They hold the memory of place and renew reciprocity with the earth.
It is a beautiful day in the deep green valleys of Santander, Colombia. The sun lays down her warm rays onto my skin. My body temperature is in deep conversation, in constant negotiation with the bodies of the world beyond me, at the shifting edges where my skin bleeds into others’. A cool breeze softly whispers in my ear a reminder to inhale the breath of the present moment, and with it, the mercurial landscapes of fragrances animating the psyche of a world that is also me.
In the nearing distance, the breaking sound of water falling. Its force is in stark contrast to the grace of the silent river in which it flows. I realize that life necessitates contradictions to ever recreate itself. In the same way, love taught me that balancing the tension between unfolding my individuality and fusing with the greater whole is the sacred work of being alive.
On the ground below, I see endless lines of ants carrying green leaves larger than themselves. They work tirelessly toward something greater than their tiny, individual bodies. Like the ants, humans, too, are colonies. I exist because we exist, and we exist only because we are organized in a meshwork of life-affirming relationships. Like the ants, we too have the capacity to conceive greatness, to reach further by reaching out to each other.
Witnessing the landscape in full aliveness, I, too, experience my aliveness being witnessed. Like the birds and bumble bees dancing in the air, I’m not an outside spectator, but an active participant in an unfurling world. Love is this deep knowing in my bones that I am because everything else is. Love is taking responsibility to allow all that is to fully unfold and express itself. “To fall in love outwardly”, because we can feel the unconditional love that the land gifts us if we allow our hearts to be open and fully receive.
The evening falls. Singing birds in the sky above announce the onset of twilight, a threshold where the bright light of day meets the night’s invisible darkness. It is a space where the old welcomes the new and the new integrates the old. Nature’s countless conversations do not end here. They get carried deep into the mystery of the night by the bats and owls and move through the rustling branches where the night monkeys play.
The sense of deep belonging I experienced that day reawakened my soul and made me aware of the dullness of the world I would soon return to. How do we preserve the potency of such meaningful experiences of deep interbeing in a culture that only seems to be talking to itself? And how did we get so divorced from the rest of creation that such awakening moments have become the exception rather than the norm?
THE STORY OF SEPARATION — LIVING DIVIDED
The purpose of science is to make ourselves the masters and possessors of nature. — René Descartes
Stories can become socially enacted in ways that don’t serve the larger enterprise of life. They degenerate rather than proliferate aliveness. One such story is the story of separation. It emerged several millennia ago but only really started to take root in the last 500 years.
The story of separation plays into that aspect of ourselves that is prone to divide; lacks the imagination to appreciate the paradoxes inherent to life; assumes that to survive is to conquer and dominate over others. It’s the story that makes people believe that “there is no such thing as society” and we’re but a mere summation of individuals, acting purely out of rational self-interest.
In her book Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World, Carolyn Merchant summarizes the words of 16th-century philosopher Francis Bacon that would inspire western culture for centuries to come and further deepen the fictitious trenches of separation between humans and the non-human world:
“The new man of science, he wrote, must not think that the ‘inquisition of nature is in any part interdicted or forbidden.’ Nature must be ‘bound into service’ and made a ‘slave,’ put ‘in constraint,’ and ‘molded’ by the mechanical arts. The ‘searchers and spies of nature’ were to discover her plots and secrets. Nature’s womb, Bacon argued, harbored secrets that through technology could be wrested from her grasp for use in the improvement of the human condition… ‘nature takes orders from man and works under his authority.’ The method of science was not to be achieved by developing abstract notions such as those of the medieval scholastics, but rather through the instruction of the understanding ‘that it may in very truth dissect nature.’ ‘By art and the hand of man,’ nature should be ‘forced out of her natural state and squeezed and molded.’ In this way ‘human knowledge and human power meet in one.’"
Anthropologist and author Jason Hickel provides another example of the story of separation. He describes how the process of enclosure created the conditions for early capitalists to accumulate enormous swaths of land that were previously managed as a commons:
“Rather, they [the merchant bourgeoisie] forced them [the peasants] off their land in a violent, continent-wide campaign of evictions. As for the commons — those collectively managed pastures, forests and rivers that sustained rural communities — they were fenced off and privatised for elite use. They became, in a word, property.
This process was known as 'enclosure'. Thousands of rural communities were destroyed during the enclosure movement: crops were ripped up and burned, whole villages razed to the ground. Commoners lost their access to land, forests, game, fodder, water, fish — all the resources necessary for life.
With subsistence economies destroyed and commons fenced off, people had no choice but to sell their labour for wages — not to earn a bit of extra income, as under the previous regime, nor to satisfy the demands of a lord, as under serfdom, but simply in order to survive.”
Separation becomes visible the more you listen to its stories. The idea of work-life balance pretends that we have two separate selves, and that we can easily leave our “personal” lives at the door before entering the office. Our sciences, too, are grounded in this story as they try to establish an objective reality outside and independent of our subjective experience. Separation is deeply ingrained in our financial system: for instance, ESG frameworks consider the social as separate from the environment. This thinking originates from the same story that believes culture — and the economy for that matter, exists outside the realm of nature, that humans are separate from non-humans, and that our actions, like footprints in the sand washed away by waves, have no prolonged impact on the larger relational fabric of existence.
We’re in a state of ecological collapse. 5 out of 9 planetary boundaries have been crossed. Climate change is already a living reality for millions of people in the global South. Inequality is rising, and will only further exacerbate since the effects of climate change are distributed unequally. More than 300 million people globally are living with a mental health condition, a number that will only increase as living conditions worsen and our planetary systems continue to break down. These crises are not separate from each other as the story of separation makes us believe but expressions of the same meta-crisis of disconnection. In Matter and Desire, biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber speaks to the interconnection of today’s wicked problems:
“Our individual psychological doom manifests collectively as a universal ecological calamity. Both are interwoven with one another. Both are symptoms of a fundamental misunderstanding of ourselves and of reality. In a world of ruined aliveness, it is impossible to be alive oneself. Both inner aliveness and the aliveness of the natural world are facets of something deeply interconnected. As such, the I is indebted to the You, the health of our loving relationships guaranteed only by the ecological health of a world that is constituted by those same relationships.”
We’re in dire need of a new cultural story to live by. Not to negate the old, as Sophie Strand writes, but to “compost” the stories that no longer serve us so they can become fertile ground from which a new story may emerge. A story that doesn’t tell us we’re separate from but deeply interconnected with all living beings. One that recognizes that human flourishing is relational and contingent on ecological health. One that reminds us of our ancestors and of our inheritance in a more-than-human world.
This new story of the world — the story of interbeing — is already being born. Not at the center stage of political discourse but at the outer edges of society where real change germinates first. We’re undergoing a deep cultural metamorphosis in which the old disintegrates and gives rise to the new.
THE COCOON OF THE IN-BETWEEN
Butterflies start their lives as caterpillars. Before they develop their large, colorful wings and long antennas, these little crawling creatures spend days devouring many times their own weight in whatever greenery the forest has to offer. They then find a leaf or twig, hang themselves upside down, and spin their silky chrysalis or cocoon. But what happens inside this cocoon is most fascinating.
The caterpillar first digests itself. Their old bodies fully disintegrate into a genetic protein-rich soup. Imaginal cells then use this genetic soup to form the butterflies’ body parts, wings, and antennas. These imaginal cells, however, are first attacked by the immune system, which identifies them as a threat to their very being.
Individual and social transformation seems to occur in a similar way. We build our entire lives and cultures around a story of self, of how the world works, of what is ours to do. When that story is challenged by someone or something — like the end of a romantic relationship or the reality of ecological breakdown — it can feel like the ground beneath our feet is pulled away. Like the caterpillar’s immune system, we are quick to defend the stories that gave us a well-defined identity and provided order, coherence, and purpose. We scramble wherever we can to show that we are right; that our actions are justified; that the problem exists outside of ourselves. If anything, it’s never our story that needs changing.
When stories break down, they can leave us in an empty space. We have withdrawn into our cocoons and find ourselves in a world in between worlds. Not fully in one or the other. Simultaneously leaving and arriving. We may lose our sense of meaning or feel disconnected from our work. We don’t want to continue with business as usual. The values we desire to embody no longer align with those of our workplaces, communities, or society. How do we navigate this liminal space?
NAVIGATING THE SPACE BETWEEN STORIES
Navigating the space between stories puts us up for an immense challenge. We must seek the others to find hope and support when that which we love falls away, rediscover how to grieve for what we lose and praise what is lost, and learn how to remain alive in the face of death. To not resist being wholly taken by awe at the birth of spring, because somehow we know that all is at stake. The liminal space between stories offers the possibility to reclaim our freedom, sense deeper into the future that wants to be born, and start threading a different story of the world we want to live by.
“Grief and love are sisters, woven together from the beginning. Their kinship reminds us that there is no love that does not contain loss and no loss that is not a reminder of the love we carry for what we once held close.” ― Francis Weller
As we navigate the space between stories, we are called upon to reflect on and transform our relation and response to death and grief. The world around us is heating up. The living world is dying. We’re losing our earthly relatives at incredible rates. The more we see the world as alive and composed of an entangled web of relationships that we must respect and sustain, the more pain we may experience when that interrelated web is being severed. The story of separation didn’t teach us how to cope with death and the emotions of sorrow it inevitably awakens in us. We lack the practice to grieve the life lost.
Grief requires enormous psychic strength. As a result, we often hold grief at a distance and find ways to distract and even disassociate ourselves from the pain we feel. Alcohol, drugs, shopping, work and other forms of constant ‘busyness’ become ways to patch up our emotional wounds. We may even disregard the idea of death entirely, but never without consequences. In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker writes that it is life itself that awakens death, so we “shrink from being fully alive”. To fear death is to slowly become it and to invite it further into an already dying world.
To love is to be fully alive. But how often do we withhold ourselves from fully loving because we are afraid to lose what we love and experience the emotions that accompany loss?
I believe this comes from a misunderstanding of love. In our culture, we are told that love is a scarce resource and that the more we love, the more we draw from the finite well of our hearts. But the heart doesn’t work that way. I remember the beautiful line in the movie Her: “The heart is not like a box that gets filled up, it expands the more you love.” Love is always reciprocal. The more of it we give away, the more we receive in return, and the more we grow our capacity to be loving — toward ourselves and others. To cope with loss, our challenge is to keep the curtains of our hearts open so that the light of love can always touch us. A heart that remains open is receptive to beauty and compassion and seeks understanding and forgiveness.
Whenever the human heart is healed, justice gains a foothold, peace holds sway, and ecological habitat is protected.
— Elizabeth Johnson
Sometimes, that which causes the hurt also becomes the healing. One of the ways we can find solace for our sorrows is to become present with nature around us and within us. To give ourselves permission to fully feel into our animal bodies, and reconnect to the sensuous terrain beneath our naked feet. Opening up our hearts to the wonders of the present, praising the abundance that shines through all.
There have been times when I broke out into tears for the sheer beauty of life unfolding, expressing herself in ever-new patterns, shapes, and colors. When I felt deep gratitude for the smile I shared with a friend upon witnessing a child’s joy as he jumps in puddles of water. When after a storm, the humble rays of the sun let shadows of rock preserve their mystery, meanwhile a vivid rainbow breaks through in the grey distance and birds welcome the light with their gracious songs. When I gazed deep into the dark brown eyes of a squirrel monkey in the midst of the jungle, exchanging recognition of our shared ancestry. When I notice the spirit of clean air touch my skin and circulate through my lungs, feeling one with the wind that weaves together all life.
The space between stories calls on us to reclaim our freedom. To let go of the need for a coherent story and prefabricated structures in favor of creativity. Collectively, we must break through the walls of habit and socialized ways of knowing and doing that define the old story of western culture. Bayo Akomolofe says that sometimes “the healing becomes the wound”. He invites us to ponder that, possibly, the way we respond to the crisis is part of the crisis. What we should do instead is to “stare deeper into the wound” before going into spirals of problem-solving.
For instance, the skyrocketing number of people living with a mental health condition is maybe not the problem itself, but a symptom of a deeper root cause, which we won’t be able to address through quick fixes. And maybe the very notion of mental illness — and how we pathologize and treat those that do not fit within our conception of sanity, is skewed; the logic of a story that seeks to medicate rather than to heal and to cut away the edges of human experience rather than to explore them with a humble sense of curiosity. As we start weaving the threads of a new story, we may ask ourselves: how do we ensure that our actions don’t replicate the same problems — or aggravate existing ones? What sources of knowledge and wisdom have traditionally been silenced, repressed, or forgotten? How can we include and empower persons with different ontologies and epistemologies?
The space between stories is an invitation to sit with mystery and the uncertainty it holds. Despite great efforts to build institutions that provide us with a sense of certainty, crises like the Covid-19 pandemic show us how fragile our man-made systems are. We’re waking up to the reality that uncertainty is not a war to be fought or a disease to be eradicated but an inherent quality of a complex world.
We need to cultivate our collective capacity to sit with uncertainty and complexity. I believe that in order to do so, we must radically rediscover what true leadership is. The story of separation told us that leadership is reserved for the few charismatic heroes. But reality — more often than not, does not unfold according to the logic of the hero’s journey in which men — brave and chosen by destiny, follow their cosmic purpose in search of transformation. Nor does it have to. Peter Senge speaks to this leadership myth in The Fifth Discipline:
“Especially in the West, leaders are heroes—great men (and occasionally women) who rise to the fore in times of crises. Our prevailing leadership myths are still captured by the image of the captain of the cavalry leading the charge to rescue the settlers from the attacking Indians. So long as such myths prevail, they reinforce a focus on short-term events and charismatic heroes rather than on systemic forces and collective learning. At its heart, the traditional view of leadership is based on assumptions of people's powerlessness, their lack of personal vision and inability to master the forces of change, deficits which can be remedied only by a few great leaders.”
In Old English, leader derives from the word lædan meaning "to guide” or “to go before as a guide”. Its oldest known root is from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) leit or "to go forth”. The PIE root of the word “to guide” is *weid- and means “to see”, sharing its ancestry with modern English words like “wisdom” and “idea”. Instead of someone we blindly follow into the fog ahead and trust to blaze the trail for us, a leader in its true sense is someone who helps us to see. By cultivating trust, a leader creates the conditions for new leaders to emerge, inviting others to join the great unknown. This way, we expand our collective field of perception. We elevate our ability to sense into the future with greater ease and confidence and avoid the temptation of the populist leader promising utopia or the resurrection of an imagined past.
If the space between world-creating stories has taught me anything, it is to question the stories that have been given to us and to follow their roots to the far underneath from where they are born. Not all we’ll find buried in the deep shadows is rosy, and there’s a great deal of reckoning we must do if we choose to dig deeper for the truth. But every once in a while, when we put our ears against the soft body of the earth and listen carefully, we may hear the silenced voices, the invisible conversations, and the unspoken words. And through the chatter of our everyday lives, we may start hearing the songs of our own belonging, the sweet melodies of our healing hearts. And as the tears of our sorrow nourish the earth and butterflies of joy unfurl, we will start dancing. No longer deeply out of tune, but in our natural rhythms. The story of a world in synchronicity.
Words by Niels Devisscher
Niels Devisscher works as Content and Ecosystem Strategist at Masawa. Drawing on his lived experiences in international business, the visual arts, and systems thinking, he explores topics of enlivenment, regeneration, and well-being. Learn more about his work at https://nielsdevisscher.be.