My friend, Will, hosted an event at Urban Roots Farm last October – a small gathering of farmer-poets and songmakers, reading their words and singing their sounds. It was a crisp fall evening. The firepit was warm, the words were wise, and the honest sense of community was reminding me why we had returned to this town for good.

I read aloud an essay I’d written about leaving my religion, and I played a couple of original songs. It was in the middle of a particularly emotional verse of “Something Gigantic,” when the audience of 15-20 suddenly seemed very moved. I may have even heard gasps. I knew it! I knew this was a great song with an uncommon ability to reach people. I started to feel this deep connection with the song, the audience, the cosmos. Doubts were shed. A wave of confidence washed over me. I might have shed a tear. My song was important…heroic, even.

I finished the song to polite applause.

“That was crazy!” someone remarked. I started to shrug in that humble Ozarks way that accepts the compliment but tries to not appear prideful.

Someone else chimed in, “Wow! The way that owl came down and just lifted that chicken out of the coop and disappeared into the night sky was amazing!” While everyone had been looking in my direction, they had witnessed a spectacle of farmyard abduction and murder just a few yards behind my head.

Untethered now by the restraints of courtesy, most of them were up from their seats and moving past me to inspect the rest of the chickens and a trail of feathers, while I descended into the realization that I was no big shit. I was still proud of my song, and I knew my friends still loved me, but what they had just seen was way more interesting.

I was reminded of that night recently, and it started me thinking about what Brené Brown calls, “the stories we tell ourselves.” We are neurobiologically (culturally too) wired to quickly craft a narrative to explain what we’re experiencing. We make a new acquaintance who has a strange haircut, a colleague fails to return our text, or our keys go missing; and we build a story to explain: the acquaintance is a weirdo, our colleague hates us, my wife moved my keys because her sense of tidiness is always more important to her than my happiness. Those stories can grow into a distorted reality, and make it hard for us to manage what’s really real in our lives.

It seems that in these divided times, we do this with increasing speed and rigidity. What used to be “They might be one of those” becomes “They’re definitely one of those,” even when the evidence doesn’t corroborate our hot take. We keep a tight grip on the tales we’ve told ourselves. And it will be our undoing. If we can’t learn to tell ourselves better stories, or start to suspend judgment, we are doomed in a way the ballot box cannot repair. There’s more to most people than the paper dolls we create on the fly. We’re usually more than our positions on the Second Amendment, or the hats we wear, or the places we shop. Not always, but usually.

Don’t misunderstand me, some people are assholes who deserve to be criticized and opposed. Sometimes I’m one of them. We should absolutely be unafraid to stand up and speak up, if we’re honest and informed.  Before we make our move, though, we should consider if we’re the owl, the chicken, or the confused guitar player who doesn’t really know what’s going on.


*The title of this essay is a paraphrase of a great speech title written in 1989 by a former student of mine, Jonathan Bentley. The speech was “Chicken Little, The Free Press, and You.” It was an original oratory about how economic news is always bad.

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