Some would say that storytelling is a lost art in our culture. Others might insist that it has simply moved to movies, TV shows, and video games. Whichever side you may favor, clearly stories are the lifeblood of how we make sense of our universe. We need only look at Scripture to find the power of stories. The stories of Abraham, of Jesus, of Buddha, of Mohammad, are stories that inspire millions and have changed the course of history. Every religion connects their followers through stories and rituals. Religions have no corner on the story market, though, as countries, towns, cities, schools, etc. all have their own stories.

Each one of us has his or her own story, as well; where we came from, who our family is, what religion, if any, we practice, as well as all the many twists and turns we have taken to move through this world. Our individual stories can be seen in separate little boxes. But the fact is, we are all deeply influenced by the stories of those around us as well as those powerful archetypal stories that shape history.

A few years ago, I took a memoir-writing workshop from Joan Hunter in Bridgton. The most astounding thing I learned from this workshop was that while I had lived my own stories, I actually did not know my own stories. I know it sounds paradoxical, and I certainly had an image of myself as being a more aware than average kind of person. However, what came out in my writing was a shocking revelation. No, I did not find that I had amnesia and suddenly discovered I was a different person from a different family. But I did discover that in writing my stories, a whole other layer of emotion and insight emerged. The story took on a different hue. It gave me a whole different set of clues to who I really was/am. It may sound as if I had been lying to myself, but in fact what I found was that for whatever reason, at the time I was experiencing certain stories in my life I was not really capable of feeling the full extent of what was going on. I was not able to see the patterns emerging that seem so clear to me now.

I am guessing that my experience with my own story is not that different from most people. We don’t have instant replay so that we can see the experience from different perspectives. We have time marching on with other things to attend to. Even sitting down to write a memoir is a luxury our ancestors did not have. But if you get the chance, I recommend taking this time to see yourself and how you got here, in a different light.

I think it might be helpful for us, as people influenced by our collective stories, to take a look at those stories. Take our president’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” We could think of it as just another sound bite, but in fact, it is a story that resonates with millions of people. The story is that America used to be great, it isn’t anymore, but it can be again.

This story may seem pretty straightforward, but to me the important question to answer is: What do we mean by “great”? A case could be made that America was at its greatest before it was a country and before it was called America, when the people who lived here had great reverence for the land, never took more than they needed, never polluted the rivers and the air, and lived in relative harmony for thousands of years. Or, was America great when self-governance was achieved and the Constitution written? Was it great when slavery was abolished, or when women got to vote, or when we helped to bring Hitler down? Was it great in only simple economic terms when business was booming and the middle class was growing?

I suspect that President Trump’s slogan was referring to this last interpretation, having to do with only economic factors. Taken in that light, the story is a simple one that may seem fixable to a lot of people. But to me, we as a people can look deeper, take a hard look at the past and discover what true “greatness” looks like.

I believe greatness cannot exist without humility, atonement and forgiveness. I saw greatness watching the mostly white veterans apologizing to the native people at Standing Rock for the atrocities our ancestors visited upon their people – the broken treaties, the genocide, taking of land, erasing of culture, etc. To me, any greatness that America may have achieved was built at the expense of the native people, who had and still have a great deal to teach us about how to live in community, how to walk in harmony with the land, and how to honor the great spirit in all that we do.

How would we, as a people, atone for what was done by our ancestors? We have to assume that, just as I discovered in my own story, our ancestors were not capable of feeling the full extent of what was done to the native people. Just listening to the stories of pain and loss with open hearts, as was begun in Maine with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a start. Renewing our commitment to the fair treatment of all marginalized people would also be a move in the right direction.

I will begin to believe in the greatness of America when our American story is big enough to face the full truth of the tragedy of what was done to the native people and the African slaves, when we make a true commitment to the principles shared by all our religious traditions of seeking forgiveness and showing in our actions that we are willing to take care of the most vulnerable among us, including our beloved Mother Earth, who sustains us all.

The Rev. Cathy M. Grigsby is an interfaith minister who teaches at the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine. She is the co-founder of the Interfaith Ministers of New England, an artist, a spiritual director and a retired art teacher. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

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