This morning, because the rain clouds seemed to be clearing, Nils took a squeegee to his car’s windows, carefully scraping away the drops of water. He felt self-conscious as he did this, and he wondered if others would think him silly. If someone were to remark that his behavior was pointless, that more rain was in the forecast, he decided that he would say proudly, “This is an optimistic act!”
Truth be told, Nils doesn’t feel much optimism these days. He looks around and notices how woefully unaware most people are of the human impact on the earth. There appears to be tremendous impetus to keep the current unsustainable lifestyle going. Indeed, judging from our purchasing and transportation choices, the vast majority of people are voting for more, not less, of the rich lifestyle.
How can we do this? Nils thinks it’s because of an unhealthy optimism that pervades our psyches. We tell ourselves that everything will work out fine. Everything will be OK. We do the wrong thing and hold onto an irrational hope that nothing bad will happen. And, when we look around and see everybody behaving the same way, that becomes—reasonable behavior.
Nils sees this as a form of storytelling. Stories are a vital part of our mental landscape. We consume them voraciously, in books, television, cinema, newspapers, blogs and magazines. We have a need for stories that is so powerful that great industries have grown up that provide them for us, around the clock and at a moment’s notice. People like stories for their drama, for the emotional rush, and especially for their happy endings.
There’s nothing really bad about picturing your life as a story. Nils realizes that it’s more than a useful metaphor. It’s an organizing scheme the brain uses to make sense of events and attach meaning to them. It’s a built-in human need, and pursuing that need creates within us a sense of satisfaction.
If we use that need inappropriately, then our stories become fairy tales: sweet imaginings that charm and reassure children. An addiction to stories that portray a false picture of the world is an expression of denial, a refusal to grow up, and a failure to take responsibility for our collective behavior.
If we continue to believe in the happy ending, then we will not avert the consequences of our actions.