Is Becoming Better the National Narrative?
Deep down I’ve always been an optimist. Despite plenty of reasons to focus on the negative, the gradual trajectory toward “better” in my world was expected. Like most Americans, I come from immigrant roots that slowly but surely crept from “survivable” toward a “better life”, one generation at a time. Whatever hardships hit the various families in my tree, they found a way to march onward. And I know I’m one of the lucky ones, because this trajectory isn’t true for everyone. Some family hardship stories cannot defy their gravity, and that needs to change.
Viewed through a national lens, this country has seen hard times since its inception. Even in my lifetime we’ve gone in and out of war – Vietnam, the Cold War, the Persian Gulf war, and the geographically indeterminate “war against terror.” And everywhere on the planet, we’ve battled devastating diseases, disasters, famine, and economic hardships, all of which we accept as the price of being human.
But through it all there’s been a steady counter-beat of “it’ll be okay.” As a child of the 70s, I would hear this from the proverbial national PA system of CBS, NBC and ABC. These “bullhorns” would dole out the drama and bad news with one hand, while feeding us sitcoms and purchasable panaceas with the other. It was enough to keep our minds passively believing we were plodding ever so slightly toward a better future for us all.
But things shifted. Since the dawn of cable TV, the PA system splintered into many bullhorns. Add the Internet plus smartphones, and now we can’t even count the number of bullhorns.
Without a steady drumbeat to follow anymore, we scramble to find the voices that resonate, while shouting into the wind. The cacophony is deafening and disorienting, especially these past few years. Up is down; down is up. Truth seems optional as words don’t necessarily align with reality.
And for anyone whose world of meaning was shaped by the streamlined narrative of those few steady bullhorns of the later 20th century, this is devastating. Especially so if friends and family members are captivated by an alternative narrative as they march to one of the loudest, most bullish horns in the PA system today.
Yes, I’m talking about the 2016 election and its ongoing polarization. Our national conversation presents as an endless array of Us and Them. Whether it’s good or evil; win or lose; rich or poor; educated or ignorant. There are no greys or subtleties — only black and white. And if we set aside polar opposites, the conversation seeks out division wherever it can: creating a dividing line on the spectrum of skin tone, religious self-expression, or gender and sexuality.
Holding on to Hope
My optimist self didn’t know what to do with this extreme fracturing. Plenty of my friends didn’t know either. So we turned to activism. We dove in fully and put a ton of energy into the messy soup of polarizing problems. We discussed issues ad nauseam; we threw money at people and entities to fix problems; we spoke out against those whose actions we believed were most egregious. Whether it was pushing against, or pulling away from something, that pushing or pulling had a single end goal in mind: change. Change for the better.
Sometimes this activism felt good, even necessary. We saw it was making a difference. At other times it felt like constant energy out, with our pushing or pulling simply serving as an opposing force, keeping the problems stubbornly in place. But with my children’s generation at stake, doing nothing was not an option; it was a cop out. No one should surrender to a violent world devoid of opportunity, on a planet sucked dry of sustenance.
That may sound dark and desperate, but truth be told, it’s hard to ignore yet another string of fires or hurricanes; yet another school shooting; yet another tent on the sidewalk. Still, I had to rethink my long game with this “change for the better” thing because I didn’t want my kids to grow up with a mom who seemed cloaked in desperation, often angry at the world.
So I took a step back. I listened; I read; I contemplated. How do we truly effect change? The answer I kept coming around to is this: We need to start with ourselves. We need to own our collective story. We shouldn’t settle for someone else’s bullhorn to tell the story. We — all of us — must take control of the narrative. But how?
We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For
There’s a hack out there that says “Believe it to become it”: if you act as though you already are some aspect of amazing, then others will see that in you, bringing it into reality. A similar trick is to put your thoughts and energy toward what you want more of, so it will expand in your life. The theory goes that if you focus on what’s wrong, you get more of what’s wrong. So why not focus on what’s right and to get more of what’s good?
Could this hack work for our collective story? The first step would be to take our personal “Me” stories and draw a line to our collective “We” stories. The next step would be to infuse those stories with hope — hope that things can be far better than what they seem to be. This would require some vision, even imagination. We could do this. We each have the power to access our stories, make the wider connection, use our imagination. And if harnessed together we would be an unstoppable force for humanity.
Even though the constant drumbeat over our multifaceted PA system is mostly about “things falling apart”, we can take control of the narrative by re-framing it. We can see, hear and mourn the stories of devastation, yet also believe that the world isn’t falling apart. Perhaps it’s actually breaking down to the foundation so we can build it back even better. And maybe we don’t have to wait for a clean slate to start construction. What if we simply started now?
Sure, we could keep going the way we’re going, using 20th-century thinking to address a 21st-century cluster. That would mean we continue to defer to the institutions, systems and people whose very survival depends on things staying the same as they’ve always been. Or we would passively hope, telling ourselves that a savior on a white horse will come to our rescue at the eleventh hour. But if there’s ever a time to shift our mindset and break free of the inertia, it’s now. We owe it to our children and ourselves to become the ones we’ve been waiting for.
A Platform to Build a Better Narrative
This is what brought me to BecomingBetterPeople—as a platform to challenge myself to bring out Me stories that speak to the collective We. And I’m inviting you to participate. If more of make the connection from Me to We and focus on becoming better, we will shape a better future — one based on where we want to go instead of where we simply end up.
And a Way to Empower Words with Action
And while words on their own have power, I intend to amplify them by supporting people who are boots-on-the ground change-makers. Every other post will highlight a hand-picked nonprofit that complements the theme of the previous story, with BecomingBetterPeople also making a donation to support that nonprofit.
Weekly posts will start in late-July. Meanwhile, I welcome your suggestions for stories, for non-profits to pair with stories, or helpful feedback in general. The goal is to encourage ourselves to claim a better vision for our future. Please join me!