Our lives unfold in a trajectory in time and space, but their meaning is found in story. We are all both authors and characters. Even minor characters can change any story. And do.
As an historian, I enjoy speculating on lives past, how people lived, what they did, what it must have been like “to live back then.” As an academic, of course, that enjoyment is tempered in my day job by the need to substantiate such speculations with evidence and argument.
But I am also both a philosopher and social scientist. I temper my speculations further by considering the words and the ideas that I am using and what they mean, followed by the way in which these ideas may be constructed and how they function both in the culture I am examining and in my own.
So when I read confident statements about “mass culture” today or the Zeitgeist of an earlier time, alarms go off all over the place. When those comments are extended to explain to the difference between “then and now,” how people used to live and how they live today, I not only get irritated but incensed at the sloppy thinking and cavalier conclusions that can lead to undermining the value of personal decisions.
If we want a better future, people have to make the choices that lead to it. The biggest barrier to sustainability, therefore, is the disempowerment of individuals, who then don’t feel they can make choices of any significance at all.
The problem unfolds like this:
“You are only one person, you can’t make a difference in this larger picture, so don’t bother trying. Perhaps people used to have some effect on others in their local community, but now we live in a global village and nobody really cares about what you say or do. If it makes you feel better to recycle or compost, go ahead – but it won’t change the world. Never has, never will.”
My response is simple: No significant event, for good or ill, has ever been the result of the actions of a group. It has always been the result of the choice of one person. Others may see that choice, make a similar one themselves and so become a group, but it starts with a single individual, making a choice.
It’s not how history tends to be written, of course, and the evidence for those individual choices is harder to find than the sweep of large archival sources describing the group, but the fact remains: Individual choices matter; history is the larger narrative written out of individual choices.
As a teenager, I was struck by a line in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. After the Council meeting in which Frodo takes the ring, the elf-lord Elrond says: “Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world. Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
Later, learning how the story was written in Britain during some of the darkest days early in the Second World War, it was a sign of where Tolkien and others found hope. Hope was not to be found in the large events unfolding so catastrophically, but in the resilience and determination of people beneath the notice of the various social elites, people whose individual choices would turn the tide.
We live in the midst of a story ourselves. Whether there will still be humans around to read what we have written out will depend on what we choose, today and every day.
In one sense, we are literally the authors of our own story — what we choose, what we do, what it means, how the story develops and, eventually, how it ends.
We are authors – and that fact carries with it the sense of empowerment, moral agency, social responsibility and personal capacity that it should.
Sweeping statements about mass culture need to be seen as manipulation, seducing us into accepting a concept that renders us impotent as individuals just as it persuades us to act with the group and buy the latest stuff – preferably without thought. It is easier to predict the behavior of large consumer groups if the critical faculties of the individuals weren`t involved. In other words, from the view of the producer, banners with slogans that lead people in the direction of your product tent are a good thing. Don’t think — just walk in and buy.
In reality, we all make ethical choices by the hundreds each day – we just need to recognize them for what they are and to think about the values that lie behind the choices we are already making, if we are to choose a better future.
But we are not only authors in the story of our own lives, we are also characters in the stories of other people. What we say and do, who we are and how we live, has a ripple effect on the lives of everyone we meet or touch.
On balance, I think this is where the stronger evidence for hope is to be found. Some of us play bigger roles on the world stage than others, but most of us play minor roles, seemingly well apart from the main dramatic action.
Yet the Earth story includes every living thing. Each role contributes to the whole in ways we may never see or understand, but which are just as important in the larger drama as any of the major characters.
Each day, we touch the lives of the people we encounter. Whether it is a small interaction or not, accidental or intentional, the pattern shifts with whatever we say or do.
The crucial element, however, is the level of our engagement – whether we meet the other person’s eyes, and speak to who they are out of who we are, even for a moment, can make a difference in a positive direction.
As a teacher, I have always tried to engage my students, individually and as a class, not just to teach. It takes an enormous amount of energy, most days, and I am usually left feeling I should have done more than I did. It is throwing yourself into the void that exists between strangers and hoping that you can reach them before you run out of the energy needed to establish the relation.
Unlike someone who builds an object or completes a task, however, there is rarely evidence at the end of the day that you have made any difference at all. Teachers spend their lives waiting for the glimmer of understanding, in the hope that their efforts affected their students in some way for the better.
Fortunately, those moments come — perhaps more rarely than we would like – but when they do, all the energy poured out into the void comes flooding back, and more besides.
To my shame, I can’t remember the names of all my teachers. I can’t remember what they said and did to shape who I am, how they engaged me as a person, how they made the effort to bridge the distance between us.
That they did, I am certain, and it reminds me of my own responsibilities to do the same with my own students.
Yet, in the larger narrative, it is not just about teachers and students – it is about people. We are minor characters in the story of everyone we meet.
What we say or do – what is said and done to us – can have effects beyond any expectation, when we are engaged with another person in some way that goes beneath the surface of trivial encounter.
Philosophers have tried to articulate what happens, psychologists have tried to explain it, but the closest anyone gets is the writer who tries to express what happens through a story.
When we choose to take a risk and fling ourselves out into the life of another person, even for a moment, the story changes for both of us.
And when we take that risk, the pattern of the universe changes, too.