"What's on the spaceship that's good?"
What Unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories…There's nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it…”
Tyrion Lannister - Game of Thrones
In 1891, Winston Churchill told his friend Murland Evans:
“I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine. This country will be subjected somehow, to a tremendous invasion...in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and with it, the Empire”.
He was just 17 years old. An accident that Churchill emerged as one of the greatest leaders of the 20th Century? Perhaps not.
About a century later, Czech writer Milan Kundera compared his life’s achievements to those of his friend and fellow writer Vaclav Havel. Life, so far as Kundera was concerned, was shapeless and unpredictable, having no structure or meaning to explain origin or destination. His friend Havel, on the other hand, seemed to be steered by a “meta-narrative”, a coherent story that described how the Universe, nature and his own life were guided by a definite intention and purpose. Though both were undeniably remarkable men, Kundera conceded that only Havel had truly walked with destiny. For more than two decades, Havel dissented tirelessly against communism, finally emerging as his country’s first President in 1989 following the fall of the Berlin Wall. After he left office in 1992, he would receive state honours and awards from some 28 countries. In life and in death, Havel is remembered as one of the most courageous moral voices of our time.
There’s little doubt that stories influence our imagination but is the same true of our behaviour and even our destiny? What, for instance, led British PM Boris Johnson to watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy while he was fighting COVID-19? Sheer boredom or something else? It was questions like these that Canadian Psychologist Jordan Peterson set out to explore in his book Maps of Meaning.. In studying the destinies of both the famous and infamous, Peterson realised, as Kundera had, that all truly great lives adhered to a discernible narrative structure or “a low-resolution grand narrative”. These “meta-narratives” were like great rivers of meaning and purpose that people could either choose or refuse to step into. Of course, a simple comparison between Churchill and Hitler shows just how much that choice matters.
What is also clear is how important the choice is in a time of crisis or emergency.
Consider the miracle of Apollo 13 in April 1970 where a meta-narrative force-multiplied technical excellence into nearly 100 hours of consistently superhuman teamwork. Small wonder that flight controller Gene Kranz would later say with an almost mythical zeal that each person on his “team of twenty-somethings” was a “hero working among heroes”. But the meta-narrative operated on an even larger scale than mission control. Beyond Kranz’s unit, NASA had itself been steeped in the heady rhetoric of Kennedy’s 1962 “Man on the Moon” speech. The space program, assured Kennedy, would give Americans something to live for, something that would re-establish the nation’s prestige in the eyes of the global community. It would be the acid test of American skill, expertise and ingenuity. As far as Kranz and his team of heroes were concerned, this meant bringing crews back alive from every single mission. “Failure is not an option”, Kranz famously quipped.
Consider America during World War II where a meta-narrative became a script to guide and sustain the most granular of behaviours. During a fireside chat in 1940, Roosevelt had described the nation as “the great arsenal of democracy”. Though not yet technically at war Americans must live with “the same sense of urgency and the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show if we were at war." This meta-narrative snapped the nation out of its post-depression lethargy. A luxury cruise liner called the Queen Mary which carried 3000 people in peacetime was now rapidly re-purposed to carry 15000 troops. “Rubber matinees” in local movie theatres offered free entertainment to anyone who brought in their waste rubber. People grew “victory gardens” and drove their cars at a “victory speed” of 35 MPH. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” was the well-worn mantra. The meta-narrative ensured that some behaviour was frequently taken to extremes: A women’s basketball game at Northwestern University was stopped so that the referee and all 10 players could scour the playing surface for a lost bobby pin. As far as everyone was concerned, the survival of western civilisation depended on it.
In unprecedented times like these, it can be difficult to discern which river of narrative to step into. After all, not all rivers reach the sea. Sometimes, it's the most tenuous of trickles and tributaries that eventually dock with the main waterway. As the late C.S. Lewis once wrote: “for man on a mountain road by night, a glimpse of the next three feet of road may matter more than a vision of the horizon.”
In the case of Captain Tom Moore, it was the next 100 feet - roughly the distance of one full circuit of his Bedfordshire garden. At first, the plucky 99-year-old wondered whether a daily lap might help raise £1000 for the NHS. But by Friday, and after 100 circuits, some £17 million had poured in. Most tellingly, Moore doesn’t need to be asked twice to sport the medals he was awarded for service in India and Burma, symbols in turn, of the narrative that inspired the “keep calm and carry on” generation. As broadcaster Edward-Murrow reminded America during the terrors of McCarthyism - and as Moore reminds England now - “if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, we remember that we are not descended from fearful men”. Or from fearful women for that matter.
Fearful or not, In our darkest hour, the river is often revealed by a simple question. 45 minutes after the Apollo 13 explosion, Eugene Kranz asked his team:
“What do you think we’ve got in the spacecraft that’s good?”
Today's picture is courtesy of the brilliant English artist Charlie Mackesy