Our Stories, Ourselves November 8, 2020 Sarah Swift
Sam Vimes, hero of several of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, is trapped in a cave in Koom Valley, where dwarves and trolls have met to annihilate each other. Sam is a cop. He’s there to prevent carnage. The clock is ticking. It’s nearly 6 P.M., and Sam is frantic. Every day, at 6 P.M., no matter what else demands his attention in the near-feral city of Ankh-Morpork, he’s at his small son’s bedside for another reading ofWhere’s My Cow? How could he not be? Young Sam is depending on him. Young Sam cannot sleep without hearing his favorite story for the umpty-umpth time. Sam Vimes, the father, is not about to disappoint this child of his heart. How willhe get there? WILL he get there? Read Thud, to find out!
This is a reflection on words and storytelling. Of course stories are composed of words, whether heard or read. Words are the gateway to understanding ourselves and the world around us. Many creation stories bring the universe into being with just a single word.
Words conjure up rich meaning. Rob Adams gave us a stirring performance of “Mary and the Soldier” for today. This traditional song of loyalty, love and courage, is found in both Scotland and Ireland. Its words pack big punches: roved, marched, gallant, banish, treasure. Each bursts with meaning. The language almost makes war seem glorious. The song pulls at the heartstrings so strongly it surely must originate in actual events, if not feelings.
It’s stories I’m here to talk about. I’m a Terry Pratchett fan. I’ve read nearly all of his 40-something books, belong to a couple of FaceBook groups, and follow several Pratchett podcasts. I trade information and jokes with people around the world. It’s a lot of fun, and mostly kind. Sometimes it's sad. Terry Pratchett died from early onset Alzheimer’s in 2015, and we miss him terribly.
He was one funny, inventive, angry-at-the-world’s-stupidities kinda guy. Much of his astute work is wrapped in hilarious science fantasy, set on a flat planet populated by dwarves, golums, werewolves, witches, wizards, and the odd human. That’s the Discworld. Using actual “Round world” (that’s us) mythology and folklore as inspiration, with parodies of science and technology, he borrows bits from Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft to comment on life here. Little escapes his eye whether culture, politics, religion, racism, or misogyny. He wrote for children, young adults and grownups. Something for everyone. In the 1990s he became the U.K.’s number one best selling author, but had a hard time convincing U.S. publishers that Americans would understand the humor, so he has a smaller following here.
One day last summer I was listening to the audio version of The Globe, a book he wrote with two mathematicians, which alternates Discworld antics with the science and folklore supporting the fiction. Buried in chapter two is a very clever discussion of human evolution and the role narrative--storytelling--plays. It goes like this:
“We are not Homo Sapiens”, Wise Man. We are the third chimpanzee. What distinguishes us from the ordinary chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, and the Bonobo chimpanzee, Pan paniscus, is something far more subtle than our enormous brain...It is what that brain makes possible. And the most significant contribution that our large brain made to our approach to the universe was to endow us with the power of story. We are Pan narrans, the storytelling ape.”
Pan Narrans. Story-telling apes. Delicious! Today’s second reading spins this out a little further, explaining that we use stories to understand the complex intricacies of reality. I’ve been thinking about that ever since. I realize how much of my life iscomposed of stories, ones I’ve been told, read, heard, and tell myself. When echoes of words said to me as a child remain in my memory, I have woven stories—true or false—about who I am, who the speaker was, and what we were to each other. When my sister and I trade stories about our early years, we are often astonished by each other’s version. We realize we’re each keeping different parts of the story alive. Where is the truth? I encourage you all to keep a journal. Memories do slip quietly away when we’re not looking.
Gary Blanchard’s heartfelt song “Talk to Me” –written to accompany this sermon (I told him the story of what I was thinking, and he wrote a story song in return)--gets to the center of story sharing, and why it’s so crucial to living well together. He sings, “Sit with me, and you will see, we have much in common.” And then, “The stories that we tell help shape our view of life.”Sharing stories with each other is vital. And not always easy. Mary Oliver’s poem “Angels” describes the mystery of the inner world, and the difficulty of truly getting into other people’s heads. One of the most painful things about living in the politicized United States today is that we don’t seem to care about each other’s stories if they don’t feel like our own.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild talks and writes about a concept she calls Deep Story. Deep Stories are fundamental truths and beliefs—spoken and unspoken--that guide our lives. She wrote about it in her 2016 book Strangers in Their Own Land.
Hochschild is an academic living in Berkeley, California. In the first half of this decade she watched the growth of the Tea Party movement. It seemed to her, a trained sociologist, that people were voting against their own self-interests. To understand how that happens, somewhere around 2011 she moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana to get to know the people in that poor part of the country. She wanted to know them as friends and neighbors, not statistics. The area was inundated by industrial pollution, in a state with few legal protections for the people.
Hochschild came to understand the Deep Story of people—people she knew personally--who believe in the American Dream, have faith they’ll share in it, but know they have to wait their turn--in line--to reap the benefits. Work hard, obey the rules, your turn will come. But then, at some point, they noticed line cutters. Blacks. Women. Immigrants. People who weren’t in their same line, people getting ahead. New affirmative action laws were favoring these line-cutters over patient Americans who had been waiting their turn for decades, maybe generations. Vast swaths of the south flipped from Democratic-leaning to Republican-leaning as resentment grew. The Tea Party offered restitution.
Now, I may find it easy to argue with the Tea Party Movement, and all that came after, I know it’s because my Deep Story says if we’re to be honest about the story sworn in the Pledge of Allegiance, it mustbe Liberty and Justice for All. No exceptions. How we get there is another story.
From the beginning this country has treated America’s Indigenous people, enslaved Africans, and African Americans, with profound cruelty. Preposterous stories were invented to assuage guilty consciences. Stories of “savages”, stories of intelligence. Stories of superiority based on race and class. Stories of gender. U.S. history is littered with the stories invented by the winners of these struggles: Manifest Destiny, poll taxes, unequal publicly funded education. This isn’t the place—and we don’t have the time--to unpack four centuries of history. It’s the work of several lifetimes, no matter when you start. The BUUC book group has dedicated this church year to moving participants further along the line of understanding race in America. If you’re interested, the church website, BUUC.org, has the reading list and schedule.
Many anti-racist activists and writers suggest we learn about the native people who lived—and continue to live—on land we now occupy. Many of us grew up with the false story that New England’s indigenous people died out long ago. As a young reporter I was once asked to write the obituary for the so-called last Nipmuc in Southbridge. The details included his descendents. We’ve enshrined the memory of these so-called long-gone people in our place names: Quaboag, Quinneboag, Tantasqua.
The true story of Southern New England’s King Phillip’s War, when most—but not all--survivors were sold into slavery on Caribbean sugar plantations, or herded off ancestral lands, is one we’re just getting to know and reckon with. This summer’s UU General Assembly included a presentation by Indigenous staff members at the Tomaquaug Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. The museum is dedicated to telling the full story of the Indigenous people of southern New England. Their website,www.tomaquagmuseum.org, explains how you can visit. Blog postings on the site contain a wealth of information. It’s fascinating.
But honestly, these big stories of history, and just about anything on the news, plus Covid, are exhausting. Is the election over yet? What can one person do? Day-to-day, what I find most useful are stories I tell myself. As the saying goes, the journey starts with the first step.
Last week Rev. Craig referenced Jewish theologian and scholar Martin Buber’s I-Thou and I-It understanding of how we form relationships with other people. He quoted Rabbi Howard Cooper in explaining Buber.
“In an “I-Thou” relationship one subject, “I”, relates to another subject, “Thou.” This kind of relationship is characterized by openness, mutuality, directness, presentness: “being with”.
The “I-It” relationship is characterized by the absence of these qualities. In an “I-It” relationship we are relating to the world according to what it can do for us, and to other people as if they are objects.” (“The Alphabet of Paradise”, 142).
Or, as Terry Pratchett has the witch Granny Weatherwax say in the Discworld book, Carpe Jugulum,
“And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That's what sin is." "It's a lot more complicated than that--" protests the young preacher, named Mightily Oats. "No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."
And that’s where I’m headed this morning. If we are Pan Narrans—and I believe we are--our first duty is to understand the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives and the world around us. What is the relationship? Where is the truth? How much have I made up? Who am I kidding?
When I find myself in a grumpy mood, or apprehensive, say, I’ve schooled myself to stop and assess. To discern, as my yoga teacher says. Where is the pain? What is its nature? What is the story I’ve told myself about the outcome I’m expecting but not experiencing? How do I rewrite the story for a better ending?
If it’s my story, I’m in charge. Surely this is what Nelson Mandela did to survive 27 years in prison. Or what Ruth Bader Ginsberg did to rise to the top of the legal profession. Or what we do now when we wear masks and socially distance. We write our own stories. We’re in charge of our inner worlds. It informs all our relationships. Here at BUUC we share our stories every week, the verbal and the non-verbal. Through the pandemic we’ve worked to retain this important feature. The Candles of Joys and Concerns is the most obvious expression, but Coffee Hour afterward, which we’ve managed to keep through Zoom, is also important. We make the effort to maintain a community where we can share what’s in our hearts and minds, and trust it will be received with grace and compassion. Even just listening is an important gesture.
Being human is challenging. We are an ancient specie in a modern world. We are the universe aware of itself. And that’s a good story.
As Terry Pratchett says in The Thief of Time, “The perfect moment is now. Be glad of it.”