Each month, a member of the board will share a reflection on the Soul Matters monthly theme and the state of the church. The theme for May is Story. This month’s post is offered by Janna Sperry Sundby.
Just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true.
Just because we say something, tell a story, or hear a story, it doesn’t mean it’s true either. However, stories are what make us so very human. Only humans can tell stories. It seems to me that through stories we have actually created ourselves over time. Other animals and plants can show and/or sing their stories, but they don’t have verbal speaking and writing skills that can create entire storylines like we humans. What a special skill. I’d like to believe that when we tell stories about ourselves or others, we try to keep them based on fact and inspiration, not on fear, or some power struggle that we seem to lean into as a species.
I love reading stories that are both fiction and non-fiction. Nonfiction is literature based in fact. Fiction is created from the imagination. So, what are religious doctrines? What is the bible? I studied the Old Testament foot notes in a class in college. I believed those were factual. Those footnotes were the “truth” behind the movements of the tribes. What are the UUA’s 7 principles? Facts? Stories? Myths? Inspiration based? The UUA has written a new principle*. It’s inspiring to see that religious beliefs can be updated in real time.
I believe in some metaphors in the bible, in the UUA Principles, and most of the stories I tell myself, but I don’t know if what I believe is always true.
“Half the people in the world think the metaphors of their religious traditions are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result, we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who see it as myth.” – Joseph Campbell
I’m not going to dig into the facts and myths of religious doctrines, although that would be fun, I thought to focus on the stories we tell about ourselves. We all create them. When you introduce yourself to someone new you decide what to share. For me, my quick story was “I am a working Mom”. That’s what I told new people I would meet. I was proud that I created that story for myself and our family. For over 20 years, I was as an independent contractor working out of our home. I wanted to be available for our kids, without all the commuting, and we were able to create that. But at the end of 2020, I found myself retired. It was part of my long-term plan, but it happened with great swiftness due to the pandemic.
Now I need a new story. I’m not a working Mom. All the years of efforts I put into my job were just simply “gone.” Poof. I’m still a Mom, but now I’m retired, and a newly-minted-white-haired-60-year-old with a badly broken wrist. I’m wondering what my new story will be. Should it be fiction or more non-fiction? Is there a myth in there waiting to come out? I did think that I was doing some important work connecting people inside the global organization I was working in. But now I’m wondering, was I just thinking that, and it isn’t actually true?
Have you ever done the exercise of distilling your life story down to a few words or a single sentence? I did that about 25 years ago. I whittled down my purpose and essence to: “Joy and Personal Empowerment.” If I could share and spread those two things, I was living my story. I’m thinking that is still the core of my story and I should work to build up from there, creating something new.
Knowing we’re creating the stories; can we co-create the world we live in?
In Buddhism, “awakening” involves realizing that “my” story is part of a much larger story that incorporates others’ stories as well. In our UU world, we call this the interconnected web. Stories from my youth taught what it meant to be a boy or girl, what a marriage looks like and bits and pieces about slavery. I am hoping that as we age and become wiser, we can transcend outdated stories and start to tell evolved ones. I do believe we are evolving.
A dominant story from our past is Darwin’s The Origin of Species, from which “survival of the fittest” was applied to human society. The value of life was largely understood in terms of survival and success and was often measured by financial gains. Industrial tycoons like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller embraced this philosophy. Following that, there was the science and study of Eugenics. It’s almost baffling to read some of those stories now. Yet that was a mere 100 years ago. We do know, if enough people believe a story and act according to it, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If we desire to transcend our world, or to be awakened, we need to learn to story differently.
Instead of accepting a story like Darwin’s theory—which served to rationalize the growing wealth and power of a privileged elite—we can look for better ones, better because living according to them could reduce suffering. Collectively as well as personally, our stories should change, and in some cases, must change, so that we can better respond to the economic disparities and ecological challenges that confront all of us humans.
One part of my story is that I’m a UU, and here’s a new UU story:
*8th Principle: We covenant to affirm and promote:
Journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.
In conclusion: Black Lives Matter. Spread Joy and personal empowerment. I’m actively co-creating evolving stories about myself, about our community and the world around us.
I will leave you with some story quotes to ponder while I’m off working on my own new story.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
“There are only true stories. We are discovering the truth in them.” – Christina Baldwin
“There are no true stories; we are making up every one of them.” – Pema Chodron
— Janna Sperry Sundby
Member, UUCM Board of Trustees