Every now and then I get an urge. This is one of those times. I have been thinking about something for a couple of months now, and I want to explore this thought more. Usually I would do this kind of inquiry in my journal, but the subject of this thought is so unusual and social that I feel it would be better to explore it publicly.
You see, what I want to explore is a kind of story that was designed by indigenous people to look collectively at difficult moral and social issues. The story–form is called the dilemma story, it was invented in Africa to get groups of people (in their case communities) sharing with each other their best thinking about the thorny issues that haunted them.
I think we, as a species, are in a similar situation. I have this idea that we know (collectively) what we need to know to overcome what threatens us, but we are having some difficulty talking, in any real way, about it. I’ll pose what I see of the threat in a moment, but I want to say more about dilemma stories, and why I think they could be useful to us.
A dilemma story always ends with a question. There is no moral or answer. It represents no particular ideology, or worldview. It is highly unsatisfactory to the part of us that wants a clear, concise solution. Dilemma stories are designed to pose true dilemmas that have no correct solution, but vex us anyway. They ask us to put our heads and hearts together and see if “we” can put our collective arms around something that challenges all of us, they ask us to share the best of ourselves to come up with some things that could help us all.
As a psychologist, with a developmental orientation, I have been aware for some time that different stages in the growth course of the typical human being have different perspectives on life. These stages are invisible, inevitable and troublesome. People at different stages talk with each other, using the same language, and assume they mean the same thing. They don’t. This phenomenon, which I call the Babel Effect, leads to a lot of misunderstanding, confusion, heartache, mistrust, and social gridlock. The dilemma story, by virtue of having no right answer, bypasses this problem. It invites out the truest insights of everyone. In that way dilemma stories are trans-developmental, that is, they provide a means of getting to the wisdom present in any group.
For these reasons I have begun to think that dilemma stories might offer us, human kind, a way to approach a difficult topic and share the accumulated wisdom present. It seems to me that discussions, shared explorations, which don’t happen very often, could help. I know action speaks louder than words, but words are powerful, and can lead to unified actions. I suspect a course correction lies ahead. We are already in an era that is challenging. I have the idea that the more methods we have for sharing the best thought available in the collective mind, the greater likelihood there is of responding to challenge wisely.
I’ve set for myself the task of writing a dilemma story for our times. I’m having a hard time with this task however. I am afraid the story exceeds my writing capacity. I’ve only come up with the opening. “Once upon a time a person was born into an unbelievable world at an incredible time.” I think I know the course of the story, but I haven’t yet found the words for it. The dilemma is clear to me. We, as a species, have come to a place with ourselves, and each other, where we are realizing that we pose a great danger to ourselves, each other, and this our only home. We are up against ourselves, and our own creations.
That is the situation, but it isn’t the dilemma, the real wonderment that haunts me. The question that beguiles me, isn’t how to stop the situation, which may or may not be inevitable, but how to live with a knowing of this challenge. For me, at the moment, the dilemma is, what form of consciousness best serves in an age like this? I can feel the uneasiness, the grief, frustration, uncertainty, anger and dismay. I am also touched by the poignancy, hope, desire, wonder and determination. I don’t know what is going to happen. I don’t think anyone does. But, I can feel the depth of the uncertainty, the unlikelihood of it all, the vulnerability of the times, the looming of a storm-surge of change.
I find myself longing for it and fearing it. I find myself desiring to meet this change, this wave of Creation, with as much alignment as is possible. I also want to run away. But, in my best times, I stop eating chocolate, and wonder how? Is it enough to be open, to engage in what I presume to be the changes to come, to prepare for death, to grieve for all that is passing, to praise all that is, to live with a sense of how precious and unlikely it all is? I don’t know. What I do know is that I have a great desire to be as prepared as possible, not for protections sake, but to serve. The dilemma story, a kind of ancestral shared inquiry, appeals to me now. It seems to offer a way we can help each other face what we know is coming.
Finally, I think I am drawn to the dilemma story because it is truthful. This life, with all of its fragility hangs upon the thread of our choices. We are confronted, like any mortal animal with our own death (our own lives), and we are conscious that Life asks something of us (while we are here), and we wonder. Is any of this life, this planet, these others — is any of it ours? I think not, but we still have a great responsibility, that is our dilemma, at least to me, and that is why the dilemma story compels me like it does.
NEXT WEEK this post continues with “The Dilemma Story”, an excerpt from Age of Actualization: A Handbook for Growing Elder Cultureby David “Lucky” Goff.