Last summer, in a little independent bookshop in Nova Scotia, we stumbled upon a new book – The Girl and the Wolf. Written and illustrated by two native women – Katherena Vermette and Julie Flett, the book is a thoughtful and compelling retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood”.
A young girl wanders into the woods while her mother is picking berries. Suddenly, she realizes she is lost. It is getting late and she is hungry. A wolf appears and – through a beautiful, simple dialogue – the wolf helps the little girl connect to her innate wisdom. She finds food, water and, ultimately, the way back to her people. Her mother, relieved and overjoyed, reflects that while some wolves could hurt people, she has also heard stories of wolves helping lost children. The girl prepares tobacco as an offering to thank the wolf.
Ironically, just two years before, our daughter had picked up a copy of “Little Red Riding Hood” in a different Nova Scotia bookshop. That book told the classical story and the illustrations left little to the imagination. The wolf was depicted in terrifying detail, teeth bared, clawed feet rearing. One read of the book was enough for our daughter to decide that she didn’t like wolves.
As we read – and reread – “The Girl and the Wolf”, I watched my daughter’s perspective shift. She became curious, full of questions about wolves. Her understanding, previously defined by very clear parameters, in which we humans were drawn as the “good guys” and wolves were the “bad guys”, became complex, robust and open to the possibility of wolves as helpers. This, in turn, led to discussions of how and why wolves might be afraid of people and our impact on animals.
The importance of stories
Stories shape how we understand ourselves, the world around us and the relationship between the two. Long before human beings developed written language, we told stories. We tell stories about everyday events to help discern the meaning of what has happened. Myths, religious stories and even fairytales have been handed down through time as ways of exploring morality and meaning, providing emotional connection to deeply held values.
Through stories, we develop and pass down culture, traditions and important knowledge. Because storytelling has been such a key part of human communication throughout time, it has and continues to play a powerful role in how we connect and form community. Not only do commonly held stories inform how we interact and the systems upon which community is built, but through stories we empathize with others. We see ourselves in the story and we discover commonality. We build ties of connection, and not only with those immediately present. Stories connect us to past generations and hold the potential to illuminate our tie to future generations as well.
Stories also inform biases. When we encounter differences, we often tell a story about it. That story can either open our minds and hearts to difference or close us down, often due to fear. And bias, in turn, informs how we treat each other as we build relationships of either respect and equality or oppression and inequality.
In telling a story about ourselves, we provide emotionally-driven insight into who we are and what we value. When my husband and I first met, we literally spent every moment we could find for a whole week sitting together and sharing the stories of our lives up to that point. It was a profound way to get to know each other.
Stories do more than tell us about who we are and how the world works in the present, however. They also shape our conceptions of what is possible. Through stories, we imagine who we might be, how the world might be, and what agency we possess to realize those potentials. Stories can empower us and provide a sense of purpose. Or, they can take away our sense of power and agency.
Where we get our stories
Stories come through many avenues. There are the books we read, whether as children or adults. There are the stories we tell out loud, whether ones that have been passed to us by others or those we make up on the spot. There are the stories we hear through religious participation. We take in stories through films, theater and other art forms.
And there is the news media. The “spin” that is placed on news stories, the perspective from which they are told, even what gets covered – all of these elements combine in a powerfully influential narrative.
The power of the news medias’ stories is all the greater if we are not aware of the story as such. It can be easy to listen to the radio, read the paper and watch the news channels and assume that what is being covered is the truth – the only angle through which the story could be told. For example – of course climate change is a horrific occurrence and the odds are stacked against us. It’s easy to buy into this story instead of questioning why we aren’t talking about the opportunity and possibility contained in the need to address the climate crisis.
Stories and the climate crisis
Because stories play such a central role in how we understand ourselves, the world and what is possible, we must bring awareness to the dominant stories of this moment. As we strive to positively engage in the climate crisis and work for impactful and lasting change, the stories we tell ourselves and each other (particularly our children!) will either embolden and inspire or hold us back.
If we buy into the story that climate change is something that is happening to us, then we remove our agency. If we perpetuate the story that climate change is entirely a matter of carbon math, we miss the opportunity to look closely at the underlying causes and finally address the systems of exploitation and inequality rampant in society today. If we only tell ourselves and each other that addressing the climate crisis will be a tremendously unwelcome burden, then we fail to open our hearts, minds and imaginations to the very real possibility that the changes most needed to address the climate crisis will also actually make our lives more meaningful.
If we let ourselves believe the story that climate change is all our fault and that solutions come down to every individual action we take on a daily basis, then we paralyze ourselves with an untenable burden and ignore the systemic challenge at hand and the role played by a handful of powerful corporations. On the other hand, if we tell ourselves that individual action is insignificant, we hand over our power and ignore the role we play in either perpetuating or shifting the systems at-hand.
We can see, then, how critical it is that we consciously engage in the stories surrounding the climate crisis. What are we telling ourselves, each other and, especially, our children? To which stories do we give our emotions and energy? Which stories are shaping how we engage with this moment and conceive of what is possible?
A new story – for the young and for the old
The time is ripe for a new story. We need a narrative befitting of the invitation extended within the challenge of climate change. We need a story that recognizes that an invitation does, in fact, exist.
We need a story that upholds the values of love and respect and the importance of doing the work to actually get to know one another (work that often begins with our stories). We need a story that honors our agency, our capacity for impact, and our ability to consciously and collaboratively choose that impact, what echo we wish to extend into the world.
We need a story that recognizes the thread weaving the climate crisis together with the systems of exploitation and inequality throughout the world today. We need a powerful tale about the necessity of addressing those systems, our capacity to do so, and the incredible opportunity in so doing – the opportunity to build communities and ways of being that are joyous to be a part of, that value our citizenship, that are generative for all of life.
We need a story that recognizes that while we individuals alive today did not cause the climate crisis, we are perpetuating and deepening the crisis. Rather than a burden or blame game, this means we have the opportunity to positively address the crisis. Our daily actions matter and a lot of the current perpetuation lies squarely in the hands of a few very powerful corporations. They have a firm interest in maintaining the current system. Our work, both in how we approach our daily lives and in how we raise our voices for change, is to dismantle that system and build a new one.
Creating the new story
As we join together in a new story, we begin by considering the many places where narrative occurs. And then we illuminate those stories with the bright beam cast by a combination of awareness that a story is taking place and critical appraisal of the story. Is it useful? Does it support our sense of agency and the world we wish to create? Or does it limit our minds, creativity and belief in what is possible?
As we ask and answer these questions, we must also come together and creatively collaborate in weaving a new story. We are invited to dig deep as we consider what is possible and open to surprises and the important contribution of ideas and perspectives that challenge our own.
Finally, we take the story into the world, spreading it through what we say, however amplified our voice (and in this age of social media, we all have a platform for spreading a new story), through what we do and through challenging other narratives, especially those told by the media.
With young people, this process is all the more critical and interesting. Young minds both soak up the messages of stories and are ripe for creating new narratives. As you bring books into the home, consider what those stories teach children about themselves, the world and what is possible. Encourage questions and critical evaluation of messages. Invite your children to tell their own stories. Continue this encouragement of critical appraisal and creative story development as the stories filling the lives of children progress in complexity and source. Let your own mind open with the stories your children tell.
Together, we have the opportunity, now more than ever (thanks to the volume and speed of communication around the globe) to define the moment through the stories we both tell and believe. May we join together in a story that celebrates possibility, respect, wonder and agency, a story worthy of both the challenge and opportunity contained in this moment.