Stories we live by

Justine Toh muses on the benefits of the big and little stories we live by to shape us and define our realities.

“What if you don’t believe in God?”

I’d just led students through a tour of our achievement-addicted culture and how we rate and rank each other according to our accomplishments. I then read the students a story Jesus told about the Kingdom of God, commonly known as the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where every worker winds up being paid the same wage, despite their unequal labours.

Jesus suggested that God was the kind of boss who treated everyone equally, regardless of who deserved it. A provocation, I observed, to our fervent belief that our worth is linked with our work.

Hence the question. What was she supposed to do in the absence of faith?

My wholly unsatisfying answer is that reality is a contest of stories and we all need to work out which to live by.

Big stories, such as those offered by religion, offer an overarching theory of everything, and claim to be universally true.

Little stories, on the other hand, are far less ambitious. They range from works of fiction to the personal codes and values people adopt. Or they might describe an understanding of the world shared by people of a particular time and place, or even just discipline-specific bodies of knowledge. Each ‘little story’ can be mined for truths without being, necessarily, ultimate truth.

Both have their pros and cons. Big stories can be non-negotiable, their demands chafing against our choices. Little stories are friendlier, more modest. In an age out of love with big stories, plenty are attracted to the little.

But if the God Jesus describes is real and that parable wasn’t just a nice story, then grace and kindness – not comparison and competition – defines reality at rock bottom.

It’s a story I can’t help but be drawn to?