The Danger of a Single Story

Sermon preached November, 2014

Based on the TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Apparently the commander of a vessel that was engaged in maneuvers in heavy weather was on the bridge late one night when the watch (I think that is the right term), noted that there was another vessel visible directly ahead of them some distance away.

The commander ordered the appropriate person to contact the vessel and order them to turn so that they would pass to starboard. There was an immediate response saying, “We suggest you turn immediately to port.”

The commander knew the formation of the group of ships with him, even though he couldn’t see them, and responded with a sharp command for the vessel ahead of him (now closer) to pass to starboard.

The vessel responded, “We suggest you turn immediately to port.”

The commander knowing he couldn’t turn to port because there was another ship out there, pulled rank and informed the rogue vessel that this was Commander Jones on the USS Tweedledum on maneuvers and he expected the ship to get out of his way NOW.

The reply came back, “This is the North Ipswich Lighthouse, Sir. I suggest you turn immediately to port.”


As my family and I have settled into Fort Collins over these past few months, we have begun to develop a few reliable routines, none more critical than the daily ritual of my children pulling out all the stuff from their backpacks when they get home from school.

One day last week, my son Josef was in the midst of this daily routine, when he brought me a green piece of paper for a project his class would be doing for Thanksgiving.

“Our class is learning about the Pilgrims,” it said, “and the story of America. To help us explore this story, please talk about these questions with your child.” It went on, “At some point your family came to America. Please note below when they arrived and where they came from, and what their family name was.”

And then it had two lines:

My mother’s family name was __________. Her family came to America from __________ in the year ________.

My father’s family name is ____________. His family came to America from ____________ in the year _________.

After reading, I paused, took a deep breath, and turned to my curious 6 year old.

Wow, Josef, I said, this assignment is kind of challenging.

Between my pause, and breath and my measured response, a flood of less measured thoughts raced through my mind.

Mother and father – like everyone has precisely one of each?
And what’s up with this mixing up of parents generally with biological parents?
Was this actually an exercise on ancestry, it doesn’t say that. 
And what does she mean – the “Story of America” and does she really think the US contains only those whose ancestors traveled here from somewhere else?

I thought about my friends – a two-mom family that includes a Native American adopted daughter. I wondered, how did Josef’s teacher imagine they would fill out this form?

I’m guessing, she didn’t imagine it. In her story of America, or at least as that story is represented at an elementary school in Fort Collins, Colorado, my friends aren’t there.
And to some degree, neither were we.

Author Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of growing up in Nigeria as an avid and early reader, mostly of British and American children’s books.

By the time she was seven, this early reading turned into early writing as she began to craft her first stories in pencil with crayon illustrations.As she tells it in her TED Talk,
all of her early “characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.”

This, she says, “despite the fact that she lived in Nigeria, where it never snowed,
they ate mangoes, and never talked about the weather because there was no need to.”

Adichie says her limited reading exposure created in her this limited idea about what literature meant, making her believe that a “real story” had nothing to do with her every day experience. Only once she learned about and started reading African writers did she have that big “a-ha moment” that inspired her to weave together the fantasy fun of her early reading with her real-life experiences.

It reminds me of how I spent my whole life deeply connected to spirituality and faith –
I even preached the homilies at both my confirmation mass and my high school baccalaureate – but I never even imagined myself in religious leadership until I experienced my own female minister.

The priests of my childhood had created in me this limiting story of what ministers looked like, what they knew and talked about and cared about. Which is to say, they certainly didn’t wear skirts, they weren’t feminists, or moms, they didn’t study performance art or appreciate queer theory, or queer anything or anyone, and definitely didn’t love pop culture or fashion as much as I did, and do. But then suddenly, I discovered a new story
in my female skirt wearing feminist minister, and it was like – why didn’t I think of this before?!

Adichie calls this the “Danger of the Single Story.” Growing up, her “single story” was the literal stories of British and American children’s literature. Later, when she came to the US for college, she experienced the “single story” that many Americans have about Africa.

For example, her roommate asked Adichie if she could to listen to some of her tribal music, and was “consequently very disappointed when she produced her tape of Mariah Carey.”

She says, “my roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe [where]
there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

Whether or not they arise as or out of single stories, each of us walks around with a number of stories we use, consciously or subconsciously to help us understand and navigate the world and our place in it. These arrive out of our earliest years, and our family systems, our accumulated life experiences.

In our communities, we hold shared stories, narratives about how things work-origin stories recovery stories, stories of being broken apart, and lost, sometimes forever.
Stories of love and commitment and discovery. Families have stories – stories we tell and retell about each other, and congregations have stories.

We have stories that help us know who we are, how we relate to each other, and what we mean to each other and why.  Of all the ways we might think of as what binds people in relationship, we don’t name it too often, but shared stories may be one of the most important.

Stories can can keep us stuck in a perpetual cycle of struggle, or liberate us into a previously unimagined potential. When we are open to the presence of more than one story, we can choose which of these stories we want to live our lives out of and in response to.

Adichie doesn’t say whether their encounter expanded her roommate’s understanding of Africa. If she was as deeply committed to her single story as the naval commander in David’s story, for example, even if she was receiving alternative information, she may have been unwilling or unable to hear it.

Stories are one of the main factors in what psychologists call our “perceptual set.”
As Unitarian spiritual director Andrea Anastos describes it, “perceptual set” is the way
“we ‘select’ what we see or hear based on our preconceptions or expectations, and we ‘interpret’ what we see or hear based on formative past experiences,” those stories we’ve been told and that we tell about ourselves and the world around us.

Like the commander who was so sure of the story he was in, so sure of what was happening and what part he was playing, that he saw only evidence to support his theory.
He interpreted everything around him based on the story he thought he was in. His “perceptual set” prevented him from seeing what was really happening.

Some forms of “perceptual set” Anastos says, are “totally benign (tailors who notice the cut of a suit before they notice the person wearing it; gardeners who notice the garden before they notice the house.) But we have also seen tragic examples of perceptual set.”

The conversation around the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, for example,
is filled with the impact of people’s perceptual set, the impact of the story any of us has internalized about white people, and about black people, about race at all, about black teenagers, or any teenagers, about police officers, or guns, about Missouri, about America – any and all of these will change how we see and interpret the situation in Ferguson,
how we understand it as relating to us and our lives, if and how we care or respond.
Any and all of these will impact how we understand the story that played out that night in early August, the story the police officer was playing out, the story Michael Brown thought he was in, the story we still see unfolding in response.

How committed we are to a single story as we encounter Ferguson and other complex situations like Ferguson, how willing we are to open ourselves up to multiple stories
will determine just how possible reconciliation, liberation, and a deeper humanity will be – for all of us. The consequences of a deeply held “perceptual set” play out all the time at a global, societal, and also completely personal level.

My paternal grandmother walked through most of her later life believing the story
that her children had left her behind and their spouses kept them from her and her friends neglected her – after all she felt she had done for them, it stung bitterly. My grandmother was very committed to this single story, one that narrative therapists would call a “problem-saturated story.”

In response to this commitment, my grandma’s adult children – who were living full lives raising their own children – were stung by her coldness towards them, and to their spouses; her friends were confused at her sharp criticisms and eventually, whether or not my grandmother’s single story was originally true, its consequences were often fulfilled.
She was lonely and isolated and her children and their spouses and her friends, all pulled away in response to her withdrawn defensiveness.

Problem-saturated stories are often self-fulfilling: believing the problem story, you act out of its truth; others respond to you in kind, which in turn provides evidence that you were right all along. And so you double down, and repeat the cycle.

The more people who interact with a problem-saturated story, the harder it is to escape its grip, especially in times of change like our congregation is experiencing now.

During this interim time, any tendencies any one of us might have towards seeing things through the lens of a single story will find new support across relationships due to an inevitably strengthened anxiety born of change and uncertainty. Fear is a powerful fuel for the single story, especially the problem-saturated one.

Church consultant and Unitarian Universalist minister Larry Peers notes that “You can recognize the problem-saturated story when you’re in a group where someone offers an example of how difficult or awful something is and before you know it the rest of us can’t help but chime in with more evidence for how truly bad and impossible the situation is.
We can almost hear ourselves saying, even if the words aren’t verbalized, ‘You think that’s bad, let me tell you how it is even worse than that!’”

When we hear ourselves stuck in such moments – whether in our church, or in our lives –
we can help each other remember that although there are many things true about the story we’re sharing, the way we are telling it has been created as Peers says, “by a particular sifting of facts.”

There are other ways to tell the story, indeed entirely other stories available for us to live out of and create.

We can ask how others would tell the story, what outside observers might say, or even,
what would someone who disagrees with our version of events say about this situation?
All of these and similar questions, allow us to shake loose from the grip of the problem-saturated single story, and instead release ourselves into alternative, equally true stories that are present all the time, the stories that allow us to live into our potential and our goodness rather than our problems.

Unitarian Universalist congregations intentionally seek to cultivate multiple stories –
as we embodied with our singing earlier. We welcome the Buddhist chant alongside the Shaker traditional song alongside the Christian hymn alongside the contemporary Unitarian Universalist song of gratitude. And we give thanks for each of these melodies and tones and the ways they enrich the others by their coming together.

Our faith values multiple ways of understanding and naming truth and meaning,
and we value the struggle to name anything for sure, the posture of humility such questioning entails. We respect and rejoice in all the ways we each encounter and claim Life in its most ultimate sense.

We are also a place that holds many different stories about our congregation.
Often we tend to believe that whatever experience or understanding we have of our church is the same for every other church member. But in truth, our various arrival times and friendship means there are many different threads, different stories present here, all the time.

It was especially fun to realize at our Path to Membership class a couple weekends ago,
about half of the class had arrived over the summer.Which means, their story of Foothills is totally different than someone who arrived five, or ten or twenty years ago and who associate Foothills so deeply with the Rev. Marc Salkin, who retired in June.
They’d never met him.

But then again, it’s also totally different than folks like Bob who remember multiple ministers before Marc, as well as other buildings than this one, and a Fort Collins and a Unitarianism that was so totally different than it is today.

And it will be totally different than the experience of those who arrive here in five or ten or fifty years from now. Which is very fun to imagine.

Sometimes we get confused, and assert that this intentionally multi-vocal storytelling translates to “anything goes.” But this is not the case. In order to do anything of meaning,
we must ultimately bring together our many stories into a shared larger story, the story of the Foothills Unitarian Church.

Though we are invited to sing the song that speaks to our hearts, we still must choose from among the songs that fit together, for our community to work, our songs must find a similar key, a complimentary rhythm, they must work with each other to make something beautiful together.

We bring our many stories, and we listen well and we open our hearts to multiple understandings, and yet ultimately we must cede some of our individual stories
in service of a greater calling.

This greater story refuses to perpetuate the problem-saturated stories and instead feeds the larger story of hope, the story of people who are kind to one another, who assume the best in each other,who listen and love each other across our differences, who make room for the variety of stories that are present in the human family and welcome all who welcome all;people who are open and willing and curious, the story of refusing to imagine one another as an enemy, people who listen, and learn together, who speak the truth in love, who mess up and forgive each other and it’s ok, people who laugh and risk showing up for each other even when its hard, and people who want to make a real difference in the world.

Our faith is the story of what Victoria Safford describes as “the beautiful and proud history of work for human rights and freedom, for social change and peace and protection of this earth….the story of those who lived their lives and gave their lives for love, for a difficult and truly patriotic ideal of liberty and justice for all.”

As our many stories come together, we give thanks- for this is our shared song.
Let us lift our voices, and sing out, in love.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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