About science, storytelling and social conscience

One of the joys of my life as a writer is that I get to meet and hear firsthand so many stories. For a year, I’ve been able to share some of those “Sustainable We” stories with Journal readers, thanks to editor Sarah McKenzie. As she embarks on a new role, I too am shifting my focus — to a related effort I’m calling “Attainable We.”

As a communicator by profession, I have a profound sadness about how poorly we tend to share stories. The goal of Attainable We is this: How might we tell stories differently so that instead of deepening the grooves of a fragmented society, we shift the way we have conversations?

What if we were able to stop trying to be “right?”

I don’t believe there are absolute truths. Our society evolves based on the storylines we feed it. Look at science — the world of precise measure- ment and theory. Even there we’ve done a lot of shifting about what we believe.

Remember when Christians burned people at the stake if they did not agree that the earth is the center of the universe? By the time we
got to Newton’s era, we were able to believe in a clock-like universe of immutable laws. He helped us feel like we could predict everything. Now we have black holes and dark energy, and at the subatomic level we cannot predict anything.

We are always changing our truths. And finding new things that existed long before we became aware of them. Yet we still have a tendency to talk as if we see everything there is to be seen, have every perspective in place, and can arrive at a “right” answer.

What if the need to be “right” is … irrelevant? Non-existent even? What if there are simply too many legitimate perspectives?

What if we recognized our interconnected dependence?

I am enchanted with the old BBC show “Connections” with James Burke. The message of his show: nothing about our modern world was created in isolation. One idea leads to another and merges with another, to give us the comforts of home we couldn’t replicate on our own. How often today do we recognize what we take for granted in daily life?

We have become a society focused on “who knows best” without reminding ourselves, every day, simply how much we need each other in order to survive.

Commerce, industry, technology and political rivalries have largely been allowed to take over the storyline. We’ve devalued the human and glorified the machinery and the capital and the drama. What if we refocused our conversations on the relationships that lead to our ability to BE a society?

What if we became aware of how we fragment ourselves?

My kids and I love watching the show “Brain Games.” The job of our brains is not to tell us truth, but to gather information and then interpret it, based on what we’ve been taught to expect. For example, our brain sees 12 lines on a piece of paper and enables us to perceive those lines as a cube. We know the story the depiction is telling us and we interpret it for ourselves.

How easy it is to make us see what we are asked to see — or are instinctively prone to see — rendering other things invisible that are right before our eyes.

Author Jonathan Haidt says in “The Righteous Mind” that people form beliefs not through careful consideration of data, but with gut emotional reactions to experience. We seek facts that justify our beliefs, not the other way around. His book details why liberals, conservatives and libertarians see things in different ways, and why each side is right.

I believe we’ll have a safer society not when media only tells good stories, or we’ve built some magical wall that weeds out the angry and unsafe, but when we learn not to instinctively act on the categories we create.

Stand on the side of love

In the aftermath of the violent events in July, what helped me get out of the fetal position was seeing the video of diverse Dallas residents hugging members of the police who had lost five of their colleagues in a sniper attack.

I believe underneath we are one intercon- nected universe, whether we act like it or not, and someday more of this species will “get” that. Maybe it’s about continuing to tell stories with multiple perspectives. Stories of forgiveness rather than blame. Respect for collaboration and nuance rather than contention and declaration.

If we proactively start with the notion that our universe is connected, then maybe the ways we divide ourselves up politically, economically and socially will begin to seem so inconsequential that it no longer makes sense to fixate on them.

That is what “Attainable We” aims to do.

Mikki Morrissette is building a new space about science, storytelling and social conscience at AttainableWe.com.

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