Issue 02 / Human Futures

Stories are Necessary for Our Survival

We need narrative wayfinding

The coronavirus has brought us many things, but what I’ve been most overwhelmed by is its all-consuming narrative. It’s hard to tell a story now that isn’t framed by the virus and its aftershocks. And that includes this one.

The stories we hear today overwhelmingly focus on an avalanche of insurmountable issues. They confront us with a sense of helplessness and passivity. These stories are then dissected, revised, iterated and repeated upon ad infinitum. We are subjected to many hot takes, to various half-hearted assertions, to numerous new angles and points-of-view. This is the state of our collective narrative today: We are encased in a reactionary mode, where commentary is confused with creation, where the narrative agenda is set by a few people, and the rest of us just comment upon it. The result is an echo chamber of malaise.

But the reality is that there are a lot of stories that aren’t being told right now. We’re missing a crucial part of what could help us out of this: stories that help us see what we can be.

In addition to being a health crisis, an economic decimator, and part of the impetus for massive social fracturing, the pandemic is now a collective narrative we must overcome. The stories we’re surrounded by not only frame our present, but our future.

Right now, there’s a lack of stories that act as wayfinding—visions of what we should become.

Now is the time for artists and creators who are self-determined, visionary, and driven by something bigger than logical next steps. This is a moment for people who can envision a different world and help transport us there.

The plight of the pandemic is far from over. Many people look forward to a new or next normal. Yet what has become apparent to me is what a lost opportunity normalcy is. We need many possibilities that evolve as rapidly as they are formed. We need to feel overwhelmed by choice—by an expansive view of what’s possible.

Creativity helps us see

Everything begins with feeling. It’s from that point that we act or we don’t. The pandemic has brought on a cultural hesitancy. Our gears are stuck in neutral. This is what being panic-stricken looks like.

How has anyone ever moved radically forward? Not with practicality or measured playbooks. But with audacity and desire: What do we want to be? What does it look and smell and feel like?

Today, setting aside bad news can be a radical act. The present moment is tragic and crippling—but life has always been that way. There have always been harrowing struggles, mountains that have felt insurmountable. And just as there has always been sorrow and hardship, there has also always been beauty, strangeness, and laughter occurring in unison. We are not prisoners to a single emotional state.

The most radical thing we can do today is create. To shape our own uniquely viable path forward, and to be inspired by others who are doing the same. The alternative is stasis.

We say we value originality as a culture. And yet we are currently being defined by the redundant and inward conversations that are repeated around us. The narrative of today is not wrong, it just isn’t the full picture. There is nothing challenging us to divine a better future. There is simply a retreat.

The killing of George Floyd rightly spurred a revolt against centuries of systemic racism. This is incredible: many people now see a part of the picture they were apparently blind to before. But to stop at simply seeing is a misstep: the next act must be a creative one. The most interesting signs of momentum in this equity movement are all creative acts—novel solutions that show us different ways of living. Abolishing the police no longer seems outlandish to many. My own neighborhood formed a hyper-vigilant watch-group to replace the police, but the conversation has been less about policing and more about understanding. No system is considered sacred. Instead there is a sense of urgency in moving forward, with equity center-stage.

I've fallen for only a few pieces of media that have emerged during the pandemic. One of them is the New York Times podcast Sugar Calling, which has author Cheryl Strayed calling her favorite legendary writers over the age of 60, asking them for advice.

One thing has struck me about these interviews is that none of these uber-famous writers dwell on the present. In fact, all of them have purposefully created some distance from it. Alice Walker points out that she’s at a stage in her life where she was already prepared for the unknown, so this hasn’t really shaken her all that much. Margaret Atwood talks about getting through anything and everything with her work ethic. George Saunders manages to see his shelter-in-place life as something that's really not all that different from his life before. All of them have some distance from the day-to-day malaise—they separate themselves from the shared narrative so they can write their own story. They've found control through creation. They’re carried by their own view of the big picture, and they chase a clear image of a world and a life beyond.

Values are a framework for exploring the unknown

We have always lived with the unknown, but rarely has it felt so present and threatening. We often advise clients that you should use your values as a framework for exploring uncertainty. We’ve actually taken this quite literally at our own company, even asking “what would our values say?” when we’re stuck or swirling on internal decisions.

It would be impossible to create our way through this without values. They are the tenets that have cemented us to one another, yet they are also malleable enough to help us meet new demands.

I've had what I can only describe as a reawakening with my values. I’ve remembered what I care about—that I value my curiosity and creativity above all else. And I’ve had the time to frequently ask myself my favorite question, “What makes this interesting?”

There’s been nothing to do but go inward, and I’ve remembered why I became a writer in the first place: to spend time with myself and other writers, in the pursuit of something beyond. I’ve always had a good time living in my head, and with the pandemic I’ve rediscovered the many internal worlds at play.

It’s in experiencing this stretch of solitude out of its supposed order (I thought that maybe this wouldn't happen until retirement, optimistically 40 or so years away) that I’ve been able to see where to go next. I’ll be the first to admit that over the past couple years I’ve put my personal writing aside in favor of "work," but suddenly I find myself writing to please myself, with no plans to involve anyone else. It's once again become a kind of meditation.

I have remembered that I value the act of turning off one narrative to shape my own. I’m finding myself writing and reading more because there’s really nothing else that feels as urgent or as satisfying. It’s likely that nothing will materialize from what I create during this time. And that’s fine. It’s allowed me to embody a mindset of my choosing, to chase thoughts that reflect my ideals.

If we emerge unchanged, we have failed

This issue of Athena is about creating more human futures. What is a human future? We began thinking this work would be largely about the interplay of humans and machines; but instead it’s become more about how to live, the values we should uphold, and about the guiding forces that dictate our everyday attention and demand our most precious commodity: time.

A human future is one that’s driven by our boundless imagination. And that world only opens up if we begin to tell ourselves different stories.

Are we going to let other people decide the future we’re going to live in? Or will we take control and establish the narrative for ourselves? The stories we create now are essential. If we emerge from this unchanged, we've failed. It's time to imagine the stories that we want to make real.


In collaboration with

  • Jack Samels

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