Our lives are stories.
Research into human happiness has found that long term happiness is all about the stories we tell ourselves about the events of our lives. It turns out that these stories are in fact more important than the actual events. Collectively we have many stories in common. When we adopt a particular shared version we become advocates for the definitions congruent with that storyline. How we define terms like Democracy, Liberty, Freedom and Happiness are largely reliant on which cultural story we believe to be true. In turn the definitions we adopt profoundly effect our actions, which become the basis for the personal stories through which we view our lives.
Here begins a creation story.
Once upon a time in 1776 there was birthed a new nation. The founding fathers declared, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
They set out law, stating “We the People, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution…”
Not long after, perhaps four generations, during a difficult time for the nation, a war erupted. Speaking to thousands, over the bodies of the fallen soldiers of that civil war, the Leader proclaimed these words of hope: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom —and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
About a generation after the war of division was quieted, children were first tasked with the job of a daily pledge for the continuance of their government, “One nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
This is a powerful creation story we have. Most of us have repeated the pledge of allegiance thousands of times. Many of us cannot help but believe that as Americans we are part of a story both larger and more glorious than ourselves.
Enter the Robber Baron Story.
And then we go to work, and find that actually, we live in a feudal state. In this story we either believe that we are powerless minions, simply cogs in the machine, or if we are lucky, and better than others, we reside on top. Liberty is the reward for those having both God’s favor and the backbone to reach out and take what they want. “Get while the Getting is Good” is the moral of this story, and it has played a part in the darkest chapters of our nation. In this story our lives have meaning only to the extent to which we can get for ourselves, and unfortunately we can only get at the expense of others.
At several points in our history we have seen what happens when those who are writing our common story, our laws, are working not for our life, liberty, and happiness, but rather to keep the populace appeased while pleasing the powerful. The Robber Baron storyline brings us governance motivated not by the desire for a more perfect union, but by the opportunity to “make a killing.”
Then there is the Cooperation Story.
The Cooperation story believes that “Together We are Stronger.” It is as commonplace as credit unions, granges, food coops and fishermen mutual aid associations. Since the very beginnings of our nation, people have sought to be stronger by their solidarity with each other. The cooperation story is based on reciprocity, and the healthiest versions include ideals for voluntary and open membership, transparent democratic process for decisions, autonomy, and community concern. It is less a story of dominance and coercion, and more the story of seeking consensus. In the Cooperation Story, if we hope to have a government of, for, and by the people, we must step up into the responsible stewardship of our nation to make it so.
When stories collide.
In January 1912, 100 years ago this week, 20,000 mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts went on strike, after mill owners declared new cuts to their starvation wages. Their rallying cry was “Bread and Roses,” requesting not only fair wages, but dignified conditions as well.
The women, men and children of the strike spoke several languages, but were united by their common aim, to engage in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, ideals many had crossed an ocean to attain.
During the 1912 strike, a mill worker, Anna LoPizzo, was shot by police while participating in a peaceful protest. Mill owners influenced the authorities to arrest three union leaders for LoPizzo’s murder. Living the Robber Baron Story of strict hierarchy, they hoped to cripple the strike by jailing its organizers. However, because it was a collectivist movement, the strikers were working for their common liberty rather than individual freedom. Functioning with a broad definition of leadership, the strike continued despite the jailing of its primary organizers. The workers were living the cooperation story, working for something larger and more glorious than themselves.
A story for the future of our nation.
I hold these truths to be self evident: that all beings have inherent worth, that we are part of a whole that is much larger and more complex than we can ever hope to comprehend. That our words and actions have power, particularly when we work in small groups and at the local level. The biggest hurdle to democracy perhaps is the complacency of those who live within feudalism, and believe it to be liberty. These millions do not believe in their own power and so opt out of even the bare minimum of civic responsibilities. We must believe that our actions have weight, to participate within a democracy.
I believe that we participate most fully when we collaborate to govern ourselves, by actively making decisions. Deep democracy is transparent, dynamic, changing and diverse, and it requires embracing dissent. It happens when people meet and discuss their lives with the intent to find solutions not just for the most vocal, but for all.
Asking ourselves what we hold to be “self evident” is one way to understand where our biases may be and to reclaim the authorship of our story, which may in the end lead us to greater happiness. Perhaps my children will see and experience large scale democracy. Meanwhile, I just keep working on my piece, slowly practicing the skills I need to do the work, and trying to remember to keep sharing bread and smelling the flowers.
I invite you to join me in this story.