Drafting humanity’s new story

We need a transformation in our identity as human beings, says Lucy Purdy, as she reflects on the New Story Summit – a gathering of people from around the world to challenge civilisation’s norms while attempting to create a new ‘story that serves’

Maybe it creeps into your mind at work, a dim but persistent sense of unease as you switch your computer on each morning. Something about you being there, doing that job, just doesn’t feel right.

Perhaps it comes as you round the supermarket corner with your trolley, or as you scan through TV channels. Or maybe it’s when you scroll down your Facebook news feed: snippets of ego, opinion, popular culture, ricocheting around your mind like bowling pins, distracting but ultimately unimportant and unsatisfying.

Do you ever feel like you’re living a story that isn’t yours?

It’s a fascinating, aching tension that lies in this space: the gap between the roles we play and who we feel we truly are.

The New Story Summit, which unfolded over a week at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland at the end of September, was the first time an event of this scale had gathered around this idea: that not only to overcome the challenges we face individually, as societies and as a species, but to be able to flourish, we need to change the fundamental narratives that define us and which we act upon in our lives.

Those who attended came from 50 countries. A glance around the main venue, the Universal Hall, revealed beautiful diversity – not completely representative of global society, but not far from it. A cast of women, men, elders, young, indigenous peoples, nomads, artists, economists, lawyers – all ‘change makers’ of some kind bringing with them, for the sharing, their threads of what a new story for our civilisation might look like.

The opening ceremony was led by elders from the four corners of the world, and in each direction the story began. Looking any of these ways forces us to confront the state of our societies and the planet: evidence enough that we need a transformation in our identity as human beings, in how we relate to the world inside and outside of ourselves.

Making the leap

If stories are books, the ‘old story’ is a heavy, dusty volume occupying pride of place on the bookshelf but on the verge of crumbling to dust. It is a story of separation. Of self-interest, scarcity and competition. We need to surrender it to make space for the new.

The summit made it clear that deep inside, we all want to give; to connect with others and with the natural world; to live lives of emotional realness – feeling alive and present. But many of these basic human needs are going unmet, and this causes all kinds of unhealthy responses in us as we try to fill the gap.

“We want to live lives of emotional realness – feeling alive and present”

Comforted by the genuine material progress of our time, it’s also somehow not bad enough that we change our course. But people ‘going through the motions’ of life are not going to bring about the kind of fundamental change that we need.

So individual revolution needs to pave the way for a collective shift. How can we make this leap? From the old story of powerlessness and fear, to finding strength and purpose in a new narrative – a ‘story that serves’, as the summit came to define it.

As Charles Eisenstein, author of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, and a speaker at the summit, has written: “What about a world where we mostly know the faces and stories of the people around us? What about a world where we know that our daily activities contribute to the healing of the biosphere and the wellbeing of other people? We need a Story of the People that includes all of those things – and that doesn’t feel like a fantasy.”

Into the unknown

So the discussions began. We heard from speakers, from delegates. We went to workshops, we formed our own, we imposed structure, we broke it down. We got inspired, irritated, joyous and angry, and felt boredom, grief, despair and dizzying hope all within the space of a few days. At times it was utterly chaotic. In the middle of the week, handwritten Post-it notes giving details of spontaneous workshops that people had created, and which had been painstakingly arranged on large boards making a communal timetable, were reformed by rebellious delegates during the night to spell the words “we don’t know”.

It was a conference like no other. It was hard work. It revealed how reliant we can be on structure, and on authority too – not just accepting it but feeling that we need it. It brought to light our reliance on logic and systems, our habitual civil obedience, and our endemic dismissal of intuition, instinct, of anything childlike, seemingly primitive, or mysterious. It threw up our habitual behaviours and the strong emotional attachments we still have to a paradigm that is now failing catastrophically: the conquering of nature and of the self.

It showed how we are prone to still choose, despite wanting more, to live in a limited, cosseted way.

But the summit was about this very thing: going into a place of vulnerability, allowing the discomfort and unknowing to rise to the surface, and with it raise our awareness. It threw up that we need a change so fundamental that even our old ways of talking and thinking about change are part of the old story.

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“We’re going through a transition in our basic understanding and sense of what is possible and what is real,” said Eisenstein. “We’re transitioning into adulthood. It’s a coming of age ordeal, when one world falls apart and another is born. It seems impossible from an old understanding, as though it needs a miracle, but from a new one, it is possible. It does need a miracle. Anything less than that isn’t even worth trying.”

Even in such a challenging space, so much was positive. The growth-at-all-costs thinking, where, in the words of summit speaker, filmmaker and ecologist John Liu, we value man-made products and services higher than their source – the planet, the foundation of life – could be overturned relatively quickly by placing ecosystem function at the heart of a new, green economy. Perhaps the idea of humans as stewards of the environment is part of the old paradigm too. As permaculture teaches, we don’t have to simply try to take care of the Earth as if we are separate from it, but we can actively restore and add fertility to it. We have a valuable and integrated role to play in the evolution and flourishing of all life, and this is a natural part of being human.

More than another conference of ‘solutions’, the New Story Summit came to be about something much deeper. There was an overriding sense that if we can only find the space to act in line with our true instincts, everything could be easier than we think. After all, life wants to flourish. As summit speaker Pat McCabe of the Dine Nation reminded us: “Life creates conditions conducive to life.”

And fittingly, storytelling itself was also a strong thread. Charlene Collison, principal sustainability advisor at Forum for the Future, led several illuminating workshops. One called upon us to envision what somebody in 2050 – society having successfully turned around the crises we face – would be grateful to us for.

Living the story

So, what if we all woke up tomorrow and began to act as though we were already in the new story? Perhaps this would be enough to kick-start a paradigm shift that is not about conquest. Many of us have witnessed what Eisenstein has called moments of “amazing and beautiful synchronicity”. These experiences, which counter the logic of the old story, are consciousness-shifting moments when our conventional notions of what’s possible are rocked. Perhaps the new story is already happening and we just need to inhabit it with confidence.

“If we can only find the space to act in line with our true instincts, everything could be easier than we think”

The summit reminded me of the overwhelming need for openness to what is beyond ourselves. “The moment we create a perspective, we create a blind spot,” was just one nugget of clarity. “Reality is made up of seven billion thoughts,” was another.

Interconnectedness has to seep through each page of the new vision. We need to recognise our mutuality, acting and giving as human to human. And this must extend too into our relationships with everything else – rocks, soil, water, animals, trees, bacteria and all the rest.

“We’re done with the hero’s journey,” said Elisabet Sahtouris, an evolutionary biologist and futurist who spoke of how self-interest and heroic measures are part of the old story. “How do we tell the story of mature humanity – a story of community that’s as exciting as the story of the hero’s journey?” she asked.

We certainly didn’t come away with an answer. Whether or not it’s possible to create a tangible blueprint for the new story, it didn’t happen at the summit. But it birthed in me at least a new sense of what’s real, what’s possible, and who we are. My mind now clutches at a tantalising impression – swirling and indistinct – of a world in which the wisdom of the heart no longer contradicts the reasoning of the mind. Giving and living your truth as wholeheartedly as you can, seems to be at the core. Speaking the truth, even if your voice shakes. Placing life first and love first, and trusting, while knowing that you will never be able to predict what shifts this will provoke.

The calling is there – to live with authenticity, joy and compassion. To let your own narrative shine as its pages unfurl towards the unknown.