Healing Our Collective Stories – An American Health Crisis

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July 25, 2016

By Reggie Marra, MA, ACC

“Unaware that our stories are stories, we experience them as the world.” – David Loy1

Each of us lives, tells and writes our individual stories within the often unconscious influences of direct experience, personality, moods, family, culture (in the broadest meaning of the word) and society – all of which conspire to provide a worldview or lens through which we interpret our existence.

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Part of the current collective American story informs individual stories of police officers shooting unarmed black men; armed black men, trained to kill by the military, shooting police officers; 90 American children, women and men, on average2, dying daily from gunshot wounds, and disparate voices calling, respectively, for more guns to keep us safe, fewer guns to keep us safe, more attention to mental health, domestic violence, equal opportunity (and protection under the law), race, economic disparity, and myriad other issues – too many to mention here.

For those of us directly touched by gun violence, and increasingly for those who have not been so touched, its prevalence in a country that embraces a story of freedom, bravery, opportunity, equality, wealth and power is as uniquely conflicted as the juxtaposition of first, a Declaration of Independence grounded in an embrace of self-evident truths including the “unalienable rights…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” with second, a popular and well-funded interpretation of the Second Amendment to a Constitution – inspired by that Declaration, that, in insisting all competent Americans have the right to own as many guns as they wish, contributes to denying an average of 33,215 individuals annually of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the rights to freedom of speech, the press, religion and assembly – all of which are provided by the First Amendment to that same Constitution (and inspired by that same Declaration).

What’s a story(teller) to do?

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There is, obviously, a complexity of stories here, the surface of which we’re only beginning to skim. How, then, might we go about healing the collective story of 300-plus-million people who disagree about why ‘we’ kill so many of each other every day with guns, and what should be done about it, in a way that revises (re-visions – sees again) the current story(ies) in a way that moves us in the direction of coming to terms with things as they are (no small task). What’s the smallest big story upon which we, who disagree on the details of many smaller stories, can agree – toward the end of ending, or at least significantly reducing, our daily killing each other with guns?

Two reminders: 1) It’s all story. 2) “It’s all story” is itself a story.

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“Reflect, sometimes on the disquieting fact that most of your statements of opinions, tastes, deeds, desires, hopes and fears are statements about someone who is not really present. When you say ‘I think’ it is often not you who think, but ‘they’–it is the anonymous authority of the collectivity speaking through your mask….Who is the ‘I’ that you imagine yourself to be?”
– Thomas Merton3

More to our point here, how much of my (i.e. anyone’s) story is truly, fully mine, and how much of it is that anonymous authority of the collectivity speaking through me? Before responding, please investigate through a story of intentional, ongoing, deep reflection. Quick, unreflective, self-aggrandizing “no (in)visible cultural influences are impacting me” responses will not suffice.

In 1981 Kris Kristofferson remarked that the film Heaven’s Gate enacted “one of the basic flaws in the [American] dream—the idea that money is more important than people,”4 through the story of the Cattleman’s Association’s getting tacit approval from the government and hiring mercenaries to kill farmers in Wyoming’s 1890 Johnson County War. 126 years later, that flaw persists in the National Rifle Association’s and U.S. Congress’s collaborative story to make sure gun manufacturers stay in business (money) and lawmakers keep their seats (also money) by opposing legislation that would make it harder for Americans to own a variety of handguns and assault-style weapons that make it easier to kill (people).

One of the stories that supports more guns says that “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

An opposing story says that we use toothpaste, toothbrushes and floss because they are more effective for dental hygiene than ansandy-hook-elementary-300x200 index finger and saliva; we use telephones because they are more effective than paper cups and string for communicating; we use guns because they are more effective than fists, feet, sticks, stones, knives or spears for killing. What is it about the collective American story that endorses, pays and fights for increasingly effective killing technology among its citizens? That question warrants a response too long for this piece, but perhaps we might live with the question, Rilke style, and gradually grow into an answer before it’s too late.

“These people don’t want peace. They want revenge. After 12 years of war in my country, we realized that no one could win. Both sides were exhausted, so we settled for peace. These people have not reached that point. They still have two or three more years of killing in them.” – Salvador Sanabria5

How many more years of gun violence do we have in us? To what extent are we the people to whom Sanabria refers?

_____

1David Loy. The World Is Made of Stories. Somerville MA: Wisdom Publications, 2010.

25-year average, 2010-2014: Injury Prevention and Control: Data and Statistics, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/mortrate10_us.html

3Thomas Merton. “The Inner Experience.” Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master. Ed, Lawrence S. Cunningham. Mahwah NJ: Paulist, 1992.

4Cheryl McCall. “Can’t Keep Kris Down.” People. September 7, 1981. Vol. 16 No. 10. http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20080159,00.html. Accessed July 20,2016.

5Timothy W. Ryback. “Violence Therapy for a Country in Denial.” New York Times Magazine. 30 November 1997, sec. 6: 123-23.

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2 responses to “Healing Our Collective Stories – An American Health Crisis”

  1. […] For a look into the impact of narrative structure on larger cultural stories and current events: http://www.teleosis.org/2016/07/25/healing-our-collective-stories-an-american-health-crisis-2/ 3. For an exploration of how the writer’s perspective controls the […]

  2. […] 1. For an overview of the ongoing Narrative Tradecraft Series: http://www.teleosis.org/2017/02/01/narrative-tradecraft-and-the-conscious-liver/ 2. For a look into the impact of narrative structure on larger cultural stories and current events: http://www.teleosis.org/2016/07/25/healing-our-collective-stories-an-american-health-crisis-2/ […]

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