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The Simple Truth About the Stories We Tell

Updated: May 8

A child looking outside from a shelter in Gaza. Photo credit:

Of all the quotes about hope and despair out there, Maira Kalman’s captures my current mood: “We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. That is what governs us. We have a bipolar system.”

I exhaust myself worrying about what kind of future my girls will have, and maybe that’s why I recently pulled Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark from the shelf, hoping to tip the scales in hope’s favor. She wrote it during the Iraq war but given what has been happening in the Middle East, it seemed the perfect choice.

“Every conflict is, in part, a battle of the story we tell,” Solnit writes.

I thought of all the stories we tell ourselves, and more, the stories we are told every day. These stories target our emotions and make us vote, eat, buy, and see the world in a certain way. And the storytellers are masters at their craft: Many people vote against their interests, eat food that doesn’t make them healthier, buy items they won’t use, and consume media that doesn’t inform or enrich.

When Solnit wrote this collection of essays, I was working at a foreign policy journal in Washington, DC, focused on arms control and disarmament. The Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, and all stories converged around that goal. You could feel the slide, the ground being raised at one end, and all those against invasion slowly being dumped into the same bin that they tossed all those french fries.

The experts we spoke to told us there was no chance that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but yet that's what you heard on the talk shows and in the news. Swedish diplomat Hans Blix was one of the few to publicly insist on what all the arms control experts and ambassadors were telling us in private, that there were no biological or chemical weapons in Iraq — and a tsunami of name-calling followed.

His message didn’t fit the story the United States wanted to tell, but still I remember how he looked amid that barrage. He knew the truth, and he loved hanging with it. It made him striking, and it stirred that thing in me — hope.

Much has happened in the world since then. Besides the environmental disasters — earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and fires — we experienced school shootings and terrorist attacks. We entered a global recession. The Syrian civil war happened, as did COVID-19, the refugee crisis, and murders by police captured on mobile phones.

Connection vs. Isolation.

Two stories seem to be playing out. First is the story of ‘I see your pain and suffering.’ This story is followed by an outpouring of compassion, generosity, and people working together, many risking their lives for people they don’t know. Solnit writes that saving just one life is enough to make people feel empowered and changed.

The other story is ‘us vs. them.’ This narrative uses fear to promote exclusion, dehumanization, and the building of walls. Violence, crime, and corruption follow as the moral boundary has already been crossed. The symbol for this story might look like the jacket worn by Melania on her way to visit a migrant child detention center, scrawled with the words: “I really don’t care, do you?”

Not caring is a story we hear not just in the United States but also in Italy, Spain, Sweden, France, Germany, Finland, and so many other countries where the far right, once marginalized, is now mainstream and growing in strength.

As has been the case in our darkest moments of human history, when national leaders stoke fear and encourage racism and xenophobia, they are telling a story that we are not created equal, that we don’t owe other people or the nature around us our best selves, that it is every man for himself. Scorning the core tenet of all existing religious beliefs, schools of thought, and philosophies, even conscience itself, they are saying we don’t have to treat others the way we want to be treated.

We don’t have to be good, respectful, or even reasonable. We can do whatever we want to the environment and animals, and we especially don’t have to concern ourselves with the suffering of people not of our kind as they are not worth the ground they are walking on. They are, in fact, the reason we are in pain. Murder, mass shootings, and genocide are just a matter of time.

“Changing the story is the first step to remedying it,” Solnit writes.

I think of the many stories I have read to my girls over the years. I didn’t choose stories that made them despair for their future. I read them stories that empowered them, showing how connected we are despite how different our lives look, how miraculous nature is, and what a gift it is to have this time to live by our values and experience love in its myriad forms.

I read them stories of individuals like Jane Goodall, Wangari Maathi, Malala, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., so different, but they all did one good thing followed by another good thing — and slowly it changed the world around them.

Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk writes that at the heart of story lies “the human capacity to see the world through others’ eyes.”

Kids are brilliant at that. My girls insisted on picking up trash on their walks to school and on the beach. They planted all kinds of things in their rooms and trees in nature. They formed close friendships with kids from other cultures, traditions, and faiths.

They didn’t do everything, but they did one thing, and after that one thing, they did another thing.

There is something beautifully radical about keeping your eyes on the truth when people call you names, choosing the story of hope when failures and disasters are staring right at you, and choosing the story of trust and love when fear and hate are being peddled everywhere.

Each day is a choice between isolation and connection, despair and hope, whether to stay in one dusty but comfortable little corner or go on an exciting journey to see something new with the eyes of someone else.

I chose the stories for my girls back then, and it is in me now, for the sake of their future, to choose the story of we.

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Apr 30

You are amazing the way you put words on our worries and simplify the solution. There is only a We.

May 01
Replying to

Thank you so much for letting me know this resonated with you. Love this: There is only a We.

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