If not now, when? Reflection by the Director of Scottish International Storytelling Festival



By Donald Smith

Donald Smith

Can imagination change the world? That was the question behind this year’s Scottish International Storytelling Festival, Open Word-Open World. Of course, the answer is ‘not on its own’. However, imagination can change the way we look at things and pave the way for action.

This year, as part of the 70th anniversary of Edinburgh as a Festival City, storytellers chose to support The Earth Charter Initiative. The Earth Charter sets out principles and values that are vital if humanity is to have a future on this planet. Begun in the nineteen eighties, it has been progressively adopted by voluntary organisations, NGO’s and governments round the world.

As you would expect the Charter emphasises ecology, social justice, conflict resolution and education. But above all, it addresses the need to end our alienation from the rest of nature, and realise our connectedness with other forms of life. Earth is first and foremost, the Charter affirms, ‘Our Home’.

Humanity is part of a vast revolving universe. Earth, our home, is alive with a unique community of life. The forces of nature make existence a demanding and uncertain adventure, but Earth has provided the conditions essential to life’s evolution.

The root cause of humanity’s survival crisis is not our part in nature but our disconnect – our willingness to use the rest of existence as a tool designed only for us, to be discarded or even destroyed when we think that its usefulness is exhausted. That profound alienation from life is a matter for imagination and emotion. It is our apathy- our lack of fellow feeling- that is destroying the planet and ourselves with it.

Yet we are part of nature, and nature is part of us. The web of life is inclusive and inter-connected. Storytellers have woven these relationships and patterns into their narrative webs for millennia. Stories generate understanding and engage hearts as well as minds. That is why the Storytelling Festival brought storytellers together in a Global Gathering to consider what they can contribute to The Earth Charter. This discussion could shape their worldwide art and practice for decades to come.

However, why in Scotland, and in Edinburgh? Seventy years ago, Edinburgh was launched as a European Festival city in order that after six years of bloody global conflict, the arts would be re-established as a means of peaceful understanding and co-existence. The location was inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment with its sense of universal human rights and values, yet also with an awareness of the need for new Enlightenment to embrace a post-colonial world.

The Scottish Enlightenment though did not end with the eighteenth century- a common misunderstanding- but continues to the present day. One of the Scottish Enlightenment’s most creative thinkers, Patrick Geddes, belongs to the early twentieth century. He was celebrated in the Edinburgh Art Festival this summer because of his seminal influence on ‘Making the Future’ and he is also an inspirer of the Storytelling Festival and Centre.

Geddes was an ecologist before his time, a community arts activist, a sociologist, an educationalist, a social reformer, and a ground breaking civic planner. Moreover, his ideas were formed in the crucible of Edinburgh’s then decaying Old Town, where he brought people together to re-story the future. That is what puts Geddes right into the present day- our potential to change the narrative.

Patrick Geddes defied the still prevalent idea that life is driven by competition and conflict- the survival of the fittest. Instead he emphasised that human consciousness can change and evolve, beyond the legacy of physical evolution. Humanity can think and feel differently and so make the future. Yet creative change can only happen, according to Geddes, if we understand our place in the wider universe of life.

There is a lot of Patrick Geddes in The Earth Charter. Nevertheless, the time has come for a leap of consciousness, a step-change rather than gradual development. This is the opportunity posed by humanity’s current crisis- the possibility of a radical shift. However, if we shift backwards into barbarous conflict, that is also the threat. What would a leap forward involve?

We might turn for an answer to a modern storyteller, John Berger, who meditated long and hard on the meaning of the art of live stories. A year before his death at 90, Berger described storytelling as above all an act of hospitality. A willingness to share someone else’s experience and emotions. To wear as it were someone else’s clothes, and feel their lives on our bodies, minds and hearts.

Could such acts of radical empathy hold the clue to our common future? As Berger had written years before, ‘to try to understand the experience of another, it is necessary to dismantle the world as seen from one’s own place within it and to reassemble it as seen from his.’ Or, in the phrase that made Berger famous, we can cultivate ‘another way of seeing’.

Yet that requires a leap of imagination, because as human beings we have inherited a different habit of thought and feeling. ‘Us and Them’ is our underlying default psychology. Regularly we revert to a group mentality of insiders and outsiders. Even in the routine practicalities of everyday life, we have to make an effort to include the outsider, to step out of our habitual comfort zones.

However, such low-level exclusions are also the source of oppression, injustice, conflict and violence on a large scale. When the underlying group mentality takes hold under pressure we are individually and collectively capable of horrifying cruelty, because the ‘Them’ are no longer part of the human ‘Us’. A dehumanised ’Them’ become the object of indifference or even virulent hatred.

The human ability to alienate and hate has been greatly increased by social media. The absence of face-to-face contact makes it easier to name call, denigrate and abuse other people. Gradually that habit of mind corrupts and degrades our social solidarity.

Yet, through self-awareness and empathy, we have the ability to change. When abused others are recognised as characters in a story we share, we can no longer dehumanise them as alien beings. Or as the old proverb has it, ‘once I have heard my enemy’s story, he is no longer my enemy’. Social media also has the power to connect. If North Koreans were able to speak with people beyond their borders, then the bubble of fear in which they are forced to live would be burst.

In leaping the mental barricades of division, we use imagination, but also reason, because we are all inter-dependent, with one common home, the earth. There is no ‘final solution’ that evades the need to live together. The efficacy of destruction and death is a delusion of misdirected power. In the end, the bell is also tolling for us.

Still, the decisive attraction of radical empathy may not be reason or imagination but its emotional fulfilments. We are above all creatures of emotion. The feelings generated by inclusion and fellow-feeling are richer and more fulfilling than a group mentality driven by fear and insecurity. Negative emotion gnaws away at the wellbeing not only of its objects but its subjects too. What is true on a personal level also applies to communities, ethnicities, and nationalities. Hostility is a slow killer, hatred an outright poison.

What might trigger a leap of consciousness? Angus Peter Campbell, poet and storyteller, has just published a novel called ‘Memory and Straw’. In it, a young Artificial Intelligence innovator is working on designing mask-bots with human facial characteristics for robots. They will replace carers looking after the elderly and infirm. This work sets Gavin off on a journey into his own family history, which his partner Emma does not share. As she and Gavin sit looking at the rebuilt Reichstag in Berlin, she tells him:

Your proper work should really be this. To make a story out of glass and steel, not memory and straw. You need to deal with things, as they are, not how they were.

But, Gavin’s personal quest has already overtaken his commitment to technological innovation – he has been captivated by memory and straw.

Angus Peter Campbell acknowledges this antithesis yet moves beyond it. There are two things, he senses that can unite us as human in both realms- glass and steel; memory and straw. These are the love of the present moment, its diversity, richness and uniqueness. Or, as John Berger puts it, ‘hold everything dear’.

However, to enable this awareness we have sometimes to live in slow time. We have to experience our own selves as something real and present, for it is in that way we experience the life of everything around us as significant and real. To empathise with others, and other forms of life, helps gives us a consciousness beyond just existing. In the act of storytelling, a community of awareness is created. The individual consciousness is caught up into something richer and enriching, as the ‘I’ of experience, becomes the ‘we’ of shared story.

Some look to religion to provide such a sense of meaning. If human beings, with or without religious beliefs, act as if life has meaning, then we create the meaning, and become part of it. Storytelling is an art that creates meaning through what links disparate events into a narrative, the atoms into a dance.

Storytellers and story listeners share the making of meaning by what they put into the gaps between the words. They are co-creators and inventors. Therefore, we can endorse the excellent principles and values of The Earth Charter, but it is by storying and living them that the future will be changed. Angus Peter Campbell gives this insight, in a musical metaphor, to Gavin’s partner Emma, who is a composer.

I bet you looked at the notes and said to yourself ‘Music!’. But you’d be wrong. That’s not music on the other side of this page –  just lines and dots and symbols. The music doesn’t happen until you sing through and round and between the marks.

As the Scottish International Storytelling Festival approached, the worst consequences of humanity’s default psychology- ‘Them and Us’ – were once again on global display. The destructive folly of harnessing such emotions for political ends is terrifyingly apparent. The rest of Planet Earth is required to wait on the side-lines, while single track humans indulge in competitive displays of technological power, that are fatally undermining our own means of existence. Such delusions of control literally ‘cost the earth’.

However, the seeds of a different future are already in our hands, minds and hearts. The Global Gathering felt for participants like a transformative event. There was radical empathy and a creative passion to open up the shared web of life; to fully connect us with the diverse riches of nature’s patterns and possibilities. The Gathering took the first tentative steps towards forming a global network of storytellers to work with the Earth Charter.

Above all, there was hope, and joy. The future is a story we can make together. If not now, when?

Donald Smith is Director of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival 2017, Open Word-Open World. ‘Memory and Straw’ by Angus Peter Campbell was published in August 2017 by Luath Publishing.