Stories That Light Up The Dark

The experiences of our ancestors offer us wisdom for surviving today's crises.
SPREAD stories that light up the dark

Beginning in 2004, the ­Norwegian government and a group of international agricultural research organizations decided to invest in an idea they hoped would help humanity endure big future unknowns. It’s called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Nicknamed the Doomsday Vault, it sits inside a mountain on an Arctic archipelago and contains the seeds of more than half a million of the world’s crop varieties—in case civil strife, natural disasters, climate change, or other calamities destroy local and regional seed stocks.

The vault’s contents represent a fraction of the results of one of humanity’s greatest endeavors, thousands of years of agriculture, but key ingredients are missing—the values, knowledge, creativity, tenacity, and endurance that motivated people to maintain and propagate millions of plant varieties. It’s that kind of wisdom that has, as importantly as the actual seeds, allowed cultures to endure and innovate over the course of millennia.

Much of that knowledge is disappearing, either because of the spread of consumer culture or because of the increasing loss of cultural and linguistic diversity. But a wealth of life-affirming knowledge and wisdom can still be found in stories­—that is, in the cultural and family stories we may have learned as children or that were shared across generations. These stories can provide lessons to help us weather the unknown with our kindness and benevolence intact.

Stories, I’d argue, can help us to become resilient people.

"Our stories tell us that we didn’t become real human beings until we became communities, until the welfare of the whole became more important than the welfare of the individual."

When I realized, through my work as a futurist, that the global economy and climate were on an unpredictable path, I began searching for stories, personal and cultural, that can encourage all of us to band together and work in service of the common good as the civilized world runs up against ecological limits.

Through this process, I had the good fortune to meet some remarkable people whose oral histories go back thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years.

Adapting to the Changing Climate

Today, we’re already witnessing major shifts in our climate, and greenhouse gases that industrial nations have pumped into the atmosphere guarantee that we’ll see more change in our lifetimes, even if the world makes a transition away from fossil fuels. It’s hard to imagine what such a massive upheaval of our weather patterns will look like.

But some cultures have stories about change that occurred long ago. According to George Edwardson, 63, president and elder of the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope in Alaska, elders in his community retain an oral history across a period of “seven ice ages” (up to 350,000 years), when the regional landscape underwent dramatic climate changes that, in turn, affected the human experience.

Iñupiat stories explain how communities got through this hardship and change. Victoria Hykes Steere, an Iñupiaq human rights advocate, recounts:

Our world was green and then it snowed. It was warm and then it got cold. The few who didn’t die worked together. Snow and ice taught us to be human and think beyond our individual selves. In our legends and our history, snow and ice made us better people and led us to use our minds.

Our stories tell us that we didn’t become real human beings until we became communities, until the welfare of the whole became more important than the welfare of the individual.

We learned from the animals, such as the wolves, to see how they took care of each other.

Hykes Steere’s people are already suffering as warming temperatures break up the permafrost and literally melt the ground beneath their homes. The cost of relocating Alaska Native communities, according to Hykes Steere, has been estimated at between $100 million and $300 million per village.

Furthermore, spikes in the cost of electricity are forcing many Alaskan Natives to go without light or heat during winter evenings, so they can use the little money they have to procure enough food.

“We’re being hit hard now with climate impacts,” says Hykes Steere. “Now with the Bering Strait opening up because of melting Arctic ice, industrial shipping and fishing are additional threats to our food sources.”

Though the situation is grave, Hykes Steere’s family stories remind her how to find strength:

We do not control the environment, but we do control how we respond. … My grandmother said that when you lose hope, you lose everything.

My grandfather used to tell me I could keep certain sunrise moments alive in my memory. My grandfather trained me to look for moments when I was seeing something that would some day help me to remember the goodness.

He taught me to keep them vivid—smell them, taste them, and see them—so that when things got really bad, I could go back there. I remember the first time I did that, there were a bunch of moments that meant nothing to anyone else where the world was filled with beauty.

When things get really bad, I go into those moments … and I’m okay.

To help us carry on as economic and ecological conditions continue to deteriorate, more of us may need to draw on vivid memories of unspeakable beauty.


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Reconstituting Democracy

The stories of the Iroquois Confederacy look especially relevant as we confront the crises of governance that have led the United States to bail out banks, permit disastrously unsafe oil drilling in the Gulf, and allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on election campaigns. Renewal of sound governance is essential to addressing converging ecological, economic, and political crises.

The Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, have centuries-old wisdom on peacemaking and ethical governance. And despite a contentious academic debate about the Haudenosaunee’s degree of influence on the Constitution, the U.S. Congress in 1988 passed a resolution stating that the framers of the Constitution “most notably, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, are known to have greatly admired the concepts of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.”

The resolution goes further: “The confederation of the original Thirteen Colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the Constitution itself.”

As a faithkeeper, Chief Oren Lyons, 78, formally upholds the traditions, legends, and prophecies of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation in upstate New York—one of the Six Nations.

Lyons recounts an oral history of the Six Nations’ historic spiritual guide, the Great Peacemaker, who instructed the Haudenosaunee to “work with nature and be thankful.” Hundreds of years ago, perhaps even prior to the arrival of Columbus, the nations had been at war. But the Great Peacemaker “laid down the whole process of confederation,” urging them to eliminate conflict among themselves and be unified.

“He said our duties as leaders [are] to ... protect your relatives, your nation,” says Lyons. “Protect all life, in other words, [the] flower as well as the trees, as well as the people, as well as the animals. Everything, he said, we’re going to put into your hands, the welfare of all life, that’s your duty.”

The Haudenosaunee confederacy was based on three principles. Lyons explains:

The first point was peace and health. You can’t have peace without health. The names are interchangeable to us. Our greeting is “thank you for being well, thank you for being who you are.”

Number two was equity, equity for the people, because you can’t have justice if you don’t have equity. Equity is first, justice comes after. So, the Great Peacemaker said, equity for the people—be fair, work for their interests.

The third was the power of the good minds, unity, to be united. He said, ‘This is going to be your strength.’

In Sweden last year, I heard Lyons speak to a group of young leaders. He said that today, amid “a lot of abuse of positions of authority” among politicians, real community leaders need to emerge. New leaders, he said, need to be courageous and capable enough to help people organize and remain strong as the environment and society change.

Reseed your Own Stories

Indigenous stories offer us enduring wisdom, but Hykes Steere, Lyons, Edwardson, and many other indigenous elders have insisted to me that each of us needs to draw on our own ancestral cultures for guidance. When people learn their own cultural and family stories, they gain a deep respect for their origins and for future generations. They can then “know who they are and be who they are,” says Edwardson.

Over the past few years, I’ve distilled five tips for personal resilience from conversations I’ve had with indigenous people:

  1. Seek guidance from people who have overcome suffering with dignity.
  2. Learn from those who have maintained a sense of humor through difficult times.
  3. Converse with grandparents and great-grandparents about their stories of hardship and the lessons they’ve learned.
  4. Reflect on what’s necessary for you to develop more inner strength than you have. If this is hard to do, learn techniques, such as mindfulness, to help you listen to your heart.
  5. Connect with your own culture by developing an understanding of, and sympathy for, the experiences and stories that your ancestors handed down in your family.

For example, my family’s history stems from pre-partition north India. My late grandmother, Satya Khanna, who was born near Lyallpur, Punjab (renamed Faisalabad after the 1947 partition that divided India), knew a thing or two about gathering inner strength through difficulty.

Six years ago, she and Sudha Bua, my paternal aunt, survived a terrible accident. They took a summer evening walk together in Mill Valley, Calif., when a speeding motorcycle crossed over to the wrong side of the road and struck them.

The surgeons at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto didn’t think she’d make it. Once it was clear that she would survive, she endured several surgeries to mend her pelvis and internal organs.

55 theme stairs
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She told me that during her hospital stay, hooked up to tubes and a morphine drip, she remembered prayers taught to her in her childhood. In a mechanical bed, her face distended, blue, and bruised almost beyond recognition, she’d been in a trance, using the prayers she’d learned to visualize her body mending. Growing up, she’d come to believe time and space were surmountable by thought. In and out of the hospital, she appeared to use her spiritual skills to hasten her recovery.

In August 2008, at 91 years old, my grandmother participated in the first official Khanna family reunion, which my aunt organized and held at her and my uncle’s Mill Valley home.

I was feeling depressed at that family reunion. When you spend most of your time writing and researching on climate change scenarios and the downward direction of the economy, it’s easy to be overwhelmed.

One afternoon, I sat down with my grandmother when almost everyone else was on an excursion.

She saw straight through my unhappiness. She peered into me, smiled calmly, and said two words: “Bring gladness.”

In spite of the specter of rising seas, increased drought, human displacement, and inundated cities prognosticated by climate scientists, I needed to find ways to inspire gladness in myself and other people. It’s that simple.

Now I hope the inner strength I witnessed in my grandmother remains a seed within me. As times grow more difficult, I pray that her ability to heal mind and body is a quality I can develop and call on.

The changes wrought by peak oil, climate disruption, and economic instability will affect all of us. Yet, those who gather strength from stories of beauty, courage, love, kindness, generosity, and good will can, in a social environment of growing uneasiness, store and spread the seeds of human welfare.

Header photo by Hideyuki Kamon


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