Are We Telling the Story, or is the Story Telling Us? 

A Manifesto for The Porch – Gareth Higgins

“Don’t be afraid of anybody

Get a really good bullshit detector

Be really really tender”

Laurie Anderson on Lou Reed’s rules for living

When I was growing up, we didn’t know who to trust. Living in Belfast, the civil conflict in and about northern Ireland dominated our lives, or at least the story we told about them. Simple, everyday actions like opening doors or turning on car ignitions, or going to the movies or getting a taxi, or having a conversation with a stranger became fraught with suspicion. Silence when you expected someone to arrive home from work could leave you wondering if they were dead. Would there be someone lurking behind the door, or a bomb under the car? Would the cinema be evacuated because of a bomb under a car outside? Would the taxi driver be willing to take you where you wanted to go, or would the risk that they might be murdered outweigh the incentive of a fare? Would the stranger be one of those lovely friends you just hadn’t met yet, or would they tell other strangers things about you that could get you killed? Was your loved one dead, or just stuck in traffic? 

This was the story we told: that we were living in hell, and nobody knew how to fix it. This was the story we told: that “we” were right and “they” were wrong. This was the story we told: that if only we could defeat our enemies, we could enjoy the spectacular natural beauty of our landscape, the exquisite imaginations of our poets and artists, the warm hospitality for which we were reputed by tourist guides. We didn’t know it, but amidst the horror of the violence used on behalf (though not always with the consent) of all sides of our divided community, there was another story underway. 

Quiet, immense strength was manifesting among people willing to forgo divisive ideology in favor of the common good. People willing to let go of the old certainties about “winning” and instead embody communities led by beautiful, life-giving ambiguity and not the superficial gratification of “being right”. People who allowed their imagination to be funded by heart, mind, and experimentation, and not dogma. For the first half of my life, we continued to harm each other in northern Ireland. For the second half, and continuing now, we’ve been learning to talk instead, although we sometimes still face the violence and sorrow that some people feel will advance their cause. Many of us look back on our history of violent conflict with a mix of grief, regret, and shame. We may still want to be right, but we’re learning that being imaginative is better. My personal pain is less than many, greater than some, but there are few consolations to competitive suffering. What unites some survivors of violence, no matter what the shape of our wounds may be, is the desire to prevent what happened to us from happening to others. What is uniting some of us even more is the notion that weaving a pathway through suffering must coexist with the experience of beauty. Nothing is ever perfect. So, with at the same time as witnessing the wounds of atrocity, and working to end them, we want to notice the rainbows in the distance, the aroma of fresh cut grass, the butterflies by the side of the road. We are not naive. We are warriors, who believe that peace is the way to itself, and that every story we tell can heal us, or kill us.  

 

*

I live in the US now, which grants me the opportunity to compare the strife of my youth and the peace process of my early adult life with the political climate in what my mentor John O’Donohue often called “the land of the free and the home of the exceptionally brave.” It’s a beautiful country, and it’s a broken country.  The recent political convention season revealed a truth by accident when a well known national figure responded to a journalist’s affirmation that, contrary to his promise of increasing danger, that violence is actually reducing. “Theoretically [you] may be right,” he said, “but it’s not where human beings are…As a political candidate I’ll go with how people feel, and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.” Even if that’s what he really believes, how sad to reject the possibility that “human beings” might actually be more capable of recognizing a lie when we see it. He doesn’t know it, but he’s replicating a well-worn myth, one that keeps human beings afraid and controlled. He, and his colleagues, could help lead people out of this prison. But he’s trapped in it, too. Maybe we can help…

The stories we tell shape how we experience everything. When we tell a diminished story, we make a diminished life. The culture many of us have been born into embodies a number of such stories. Some of the elements of these stories include:

  • We are born into darkness, and have to fight our way out of it.
  • Winning is everything. Get as much as you can, keep as much as you can, and give some away for the sake of your conscience.
  • The past is a list of honorable military victories in which ultimate force was used to overthrow ultimate evil.
  • There’s nothing most of us can do to change things.
  • People engaged in peacemaking are either naive and unrealistic, or so heroic and unusual that their actions can’t be emulated. The expression of anger is antithetical to peacemaking.
  • Religion and politics are about moral purity, community boundaries, and being right.
  • Violence brings order out of chaos, and can literally redeem things.
  • This is one of the most violent times in history to be alive.

These stories are widely believed, but they are not true. In his magnificent poem The Skylight, Seamus Heaney illustrates the notion that sometimes the most valuable gifts come from allowing another perspective to tell a new story. He begins by challenging his wife’s desire for a skylight in their house. He preferred “it low and closed…the perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling”. A skylight would destroy the comfort of a contained space. But when the roof was cut open, and the skylight placed, Heaney was transformed. So profound was the change that he reached for a miraculous analogy: that of witnessing healing from paralysis. The skylight to which he had stood opposed, which he believed could only diminish turned out to contain the very seeds of life. It opened him to a new story, and nothing was ever the same. Something like this can happen here too. Wisdom tells us about better stories than the dominant ones in our culture, and The Porch will be a space to explore them, such as:

The foundational stories of Western culture are rooted in the notion that we define ourselves, and resolve conflicts through scapegoating the other.  Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Walter Wink and Alice Walker, Harriet Tubman and Jim Henson, and millions of others, famous and quiet alike, have illuminated the path of how to nonviolently subvert that myth, inviting human beings to consider the possibilities of tactics that result in beloved community. It’s hard work, it takes courage, but it’s also fun.

We need to know where we have come from. If we are to understand where we are, then listening to the voices of indigenous and immigrant people is vital. Our lives are confused without the practice of initiation into mature adulthood, the experience of people in community bearing each other’s burdens, and respect for the circle of life.

Spirituality is our lived relationship with mystery. Religion at its best knows how to lament wounds, educate for life, celebrate the good, and inspire change. It can help us nurture communities in which we discover how to live from the inside out, rather than for external reward; in which we encourage each other to more whole lives; and from which we can serve not sectarian or party interest, but the common good.

Talking with our opponents is both less lethal and more effective at establishing peaceable arrangements than the use of force. This is as true for nations at war as it is for individuals who merely don’t agree with each other. And somebody always has to go first.

Violence does not redeem anything; in fact it more likely creates further destabilization and long term need. Two wrongs have never made a right, and the ‘just war’ theory has more often been used as an excuse rather than actually practiced.

We may actually be living in one of the most peaceable times in human history. Our cultural myopia makes us afraid for danger lurking everywhere; but the expanding circle of empathy sensitizes us to pain we might otherwise ignore (and in the past may actually have been complicit in). Where violence is really happening, we know more about how to prevent it, and repair its wounds, than ever before.

Rates of violence are likely linked to social inequality and lack of community bonds. Nonviolent revolutions and peace processes alike have created more whole societies and resolved profound conflicts through bringing enemies to the table, addressing legitimate needs, sharing power, and making amends for past injustices. Bombing instead of talking to our enemies is the worst strategy for making peace. The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Showering the people we hate with love is not just a nice bit of poetry. It’s one of the things that will save humanity. And neither “liberals” nor “conservatives” need to violate their conscience to do it. People responsible for violence and other violations can be held to account in way that restores dignity to survivors without dehumanizing those responsible; policing, protective, and legal remedies based on restorative justice principles can be good for everyone.

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The artist Laurie Anderson paid tribute to her late husband, Lou Reed, by outlining the shared rules for living that they had discerned together.

“Don’t be afraid of anybody.”

“Get a really good bullshit detector.”

“Be really really tender.”

These rules might constitute a trinity of invitation to a space in which we take life seriously, but don’t take ourselves too seriously. They could serve us well, especially in a space and time where the loudest voices seem to identify more with division, despair, destruction or defeating the other.

I want to live, unafraid, with wisdom, tender toward myself and everyone else.

It seems easier to say these things from a desk in a quiet neighborhood, surrounded by the trappings of middle class life. I am not unaware of the pitfalls of speaking from this place. But the duty of privilege is absolute integrity, and I also speak from the experience of surviving violence in northern Ireland, and participating in a peace process that has proven the value of talking to enemies instead of killing them.

As a survivor of violence, what I have come to believe that what I need is simple:

I need a close circle of about half a dozen people, each of whom is emotionally mature in ways that the rest of us isn’t, to support, nurture, celebrate, learn from, mourn with, and dance.

I need initiation by elders, and continued mentoring into balancing the kaleidoscopic parts of my being: the decider, the artist, the lover, and the peaceful warrior.

I need to discern a sense of purpose grounded in being authentic to my true self, and opening to serving the common good.

I need to devote my attention to beauty more often than suffering. For it is beauty that will lead us to step into a world of abundance, acceptance, and ease. Would you like to join me?

Yes? Then read on…

WHAT IS THE PORCH?

We have the opportunity to help nurture everyday storytellers to heal ourselves and the world through telling a better story about both. The Porch is a magazine & online community nurturing people captivated by the idea that there is a better story, that love and beauty and joy and peace are best stirred in the slow cooker rather than the microwave, and that each of us can reduce violence in the world right now, beginning by reimagining the story we choose to tell and live into…

The Porch is a magazine and community born of the experience of hearing a better story. Instead of rapid-fire trending topics, judgmental denunciation, or “analysis” unmoored from wisdom, it will have contributions ranging from a ‘slow news’ section reflecting on important recent events from the perspective of the better story, a substantial interview with a wisdom figure, diverse columnists, musicians, artists, writers and dreamers. We’ll recommend movies, television, books and music that make our lives better– new ones and old ones, because elder wisdom is necessary to a whole life. We’ll try to do this with grace and a sense of humor. And our range of writers will be diverse, with the clear intention of over-representing historically marginalized people, especially women, people of color and indigenous people, and openly LGBTQ+ folks. In an uncertain political era, we will resist oppression by embodying a better story. There’s a Facebook page (TwitterInstagram too) with daily brief updates to help build momentum and a sense of community. We think we could make a positive dent, a real contribution, stir up a bit of magic. You can join the conversation by subscribing here.

The heart of the magazine: telling a better story together, to make a better world.

We don’t know if we’re right. But we are open. And you’re invited.