Our lives are defined by the stories we tell. Stories give meaning to our experiences, our relationships and our places. Many of these stories are personal. They’re my story, not yours. But we all have stories that define “us”, whether the “us” be a family, a community group, a nation, humanity, or all creation.
Australia has at least five great stories (each with many sub-stories), of which the first three are uniquely ours and the last two are shared more broadly: the indigenous story, stretching back 60,000 years and involving hundreds of indigenous “nations”; the British story, which began with the invasion of Australia and continued until the end of the White Australia Policy; the multicultural story, which began with post-White-Australia waves of immigration from all parts of the planet and continues to this day; the Western story, which has been a fusion of technological development, capitalist markets, and a championing of the freedom of individuals to live their lives as they choose; and the earth’s story.
Good story-telling requires wisdom, humility, empathy, and a sense of pride and shame. Wisdom allows us to connect the dots between people, places and experiences and weave a narrative that joins them into something meaningful; humility recognises the flaws and failings as well as the strengths and achievements of any story; empathy enables us to hear the voices of all participants in a story and to let go of the demand that they tell the story the same way I do; a sense of pride enables us to celebrate and build on the good in our stories, while shame allows us to respond with sorrow and repentance to that which has been destructive.
Over the course of my lifetime I think I have gotten better at telling my own stories, as I have learned that the deepest and most truthful storytelling comes when I move beyond a defensive approach that finds its reward in only the bright and glorious parts of the narrative, and neglects the dark and shadowy part, even perceiving them as a threat.
And I think that as a nation we have gotten better at telling our national stories. Our storytelling is becoming more humble, empathetic and sensitive to pride and shame. Nonetheless, some significant challenges remain. First, storytelling that is humble, empathetic and open to pride shame is difficult and will always be difficult. It requires us to listen generously to those whose experience is different to our own, to graciously hear their complaint and their pain, and to be willing to learn and change. This is emotionally and psychologically demanding. It is no surprise that we will feel tempted to retreat into narrative-ghettoes, where one-dimensional stories are told in which everyone “other” is the problem.
Second, while we are getting better at telling and listening to our great national stories, I am not sure we have determined how to join them up. Our unease over the date on which Australia Day is celebrated, treaty, and on an indigenous voice to Parliament are vivid demonstrations of this. Most of us recognise the British Invasion and subsequent development of Australia violated the rights of indigenous nations and caused ongoing damage to indigenous communities. We also recognise the achievements of the nation we have built since the invasion. We can tell the individual stories, but we are struggling to join these two stories together.
So here’s to more storytelling that is wise, humble, empathetic and sensitive to pride and shame.