Old Stories

February 1, 2018

Russ Ewell

I have been thinking about stories. Stories I tell myself. Stories we tell each other. Old stories and new stories. How two people can experience the exact same thing yet walk away with two completely different stories, each one absolutely convinced their story is true and the other person’s is false.

My journey on this intellectual adventure is only just beginning, but I can already feel the discomfort over what seems to be an impending realization I may have to face – that we are living in a period of history where our conflicts are increasingly irreconcilable because our truth is based not on facts but the stories we tell ourselves.

For instance, we have recently seen conflict over confederate statutes. Some people read the story of the confederacy as one where principled men and women fought for their beliefs, while others see in those same pages of history corrupt men and women fighting for slavery. One war and what would seem to be a clear set of facts, but two radically different stories. Do the facts determine the stories or do the stories determine which facts we accept as true?

Another set of stories involve Thomas Jefferson, a historic figure whose multi-dimensional talents have always inspired me. Over the last decade or so I, like so many others, have been confronted with conflicting stories about Mr. Jefferson. These conflicting stories were recently addressed in “The Art of Power,” a Jefferson biography written by Jon Meacham.

Mr. Meacham writes with extraordinary insight about the political dexterity of Thomas Jefferson and how much today’s leaders can learn from him. Yet, amidst the celebration of Jefferson’s great talents, he is forced to ask the question of how we can celebrate and admire a slave owner whose exploitation of and cruelty toward people of color provided him with the resources to achieve his success. When there are two distinct sets of facts and two completely different stories in one life, how should an individual be treated by history?

On a lighter note, there is Super Bowl LII, where the Patriots, who will face the Philadelphia Eagles, are seen by some as the ultimate champions, while others consider them to be unapologetic cheaters. Which of these stories are true? Once again, we are confronted with a question: Do the facts determine which story we believe, or does the story we believe determine the facts we accept?

Image courtesy @KOMBOA

Hopefully, the lightness of sports will allow us to ask questions about the Patriots that are too incendiary to ask about the Confederacy or Thomas Jefferson. Which one of the stories do you think the Patriots consider to be true? Do they consider themselves champions or cheaters?

There is little question in my mind that the Patriots consider their story to be one of champions who have overcome the adversity of being called cheaters. In all likelihood, their determination to win Super Bowls is fueled by a desire to cement the truth of their story as champions.

Why am I thinking about stories? Stories define us to ourselves and others. Stories determine how we see ourselves and how others see us. Stories determine which facts we consider true and which facts we consider false.

Now think about this – what if every individual and organization has multiple stories? Let’s call them “old” and “new” stories. The old stories are who they were in the past. The new stories are who they are in the present. What if the only way an individual or organization can change is if we allow them to leave their old stories behind, so they can live their new story?

Sometimes we can be so busy fighting each other over figures of history who cannot change that we miss the lessons they can teach us about change. Neither the Confederacy, Thomas Jefferson, nor the Patriots hold existential importance in our lives, but our understanding of the power of stories to define us is existentially important.

In life, we will all be faced with old and new stories. The old ones describe who we were in the past, while the new who we are in the present or are becoming in the future.

The truth, I think we will discover, is that unless we let go of the old stories and fully embrace the new, people will one day look back on us conflicted over who we were, because we couldn’t let go of the stagnant old to embrace the dynamic new. Equally important, if we never allow people to leave their old stories behind, then they can never fully live their new ones. Maybe this is why forgiveness is so important…it sets us free from old stories so we can live the new.