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Series Reflection: How Stories Shape Our Lives

Series Reflection: How Stories Shape Our Lives

Elizabeth Oldfield reflects on Series Seven of The Sacred. 19/07/2023



Hello, and welcome to The Sacred. My name is Elizabeth Oldfield, and this is a podcast about our deepest values, and the people behind the positions that so shaped our common life. And this is a special edition. At the end of each series, we like to look back at the people that I’ve talked to, reflect on some of the themes emerging, and see what we’ve learnt about what different people hold sacred, and what it might teach us about how we can engage with more empathy and curiosity across our divides. It’s been a really, really rich and interesting series. And I’ve been looking back very specifically at what the guests said was sacred to them. We’ve done this now for five years – in about six months’ time, we’ll be hitting 150 episodes – and so, we’re really creating quite a large dataset of the kinds of things that people think that they hold sacred. And I love seeing if there are just any patterns coming through.

Guests’ sacred values


So at the start of the series, I spoke to Abi – Abi Morgan, screenwriter, BAFTA award–winning scriptwriter, storyteller, memoirist – who would be interesting, because of the body of her work and the stories that she’s told. But she has lived this intensely unusual story with her partner, Jacob, and his illness and later experience of Capgras syndrome, where he forgot who she was, and thought she was an impostor. And her sacred value that she talked about, was ‘time’. And I think honestly, she would say the ‘time’ thing is just that that’s what’s really lacking in her life. She is constantly working to deadlines. And then perhaps slightly deeper than that, this thing of ‘truth’ – truth and authenticity – of trying to be yourself of trying to tell stories. And she’s usually telling fictional stories, but tells stories that somehow ring true: that ring true with our experiences, that connect with our sense of how human beings work, how life works. And that seemed like a really subtle and interesting thing to come through.

Dougald did this thing that I can both completely understand, and is very difficult, because he basically said, “What is sacred is where words stop working.” It’s really difficult for us to get to the ‘thing’ beyond, the story beyond what the state tells us, and what the market tells us. The stories that we have inhabited into something bigger, and more spacious, something more than what we can see. His refusal to close down that imaginative space of what’s possible, and who might be out there, felt like it was what he was grasping towards as what was sacred to him. And that’s not something I think has been put in quite that way before.

Audrey Assad – she said the body. And I really don’t think anyone has said that before, and it was a really interesting thing. And obviously quite a recent area of interest and exploration for her. She said, “Discovering the body as a locus of divine wisdom and intelligence.” And it is really noticeable, actually, how many of my guests, because of the nature of our public conversations – even in that word “conversations” is the assumption that we will be working with words, with our minds, with ideas. This more embodied sense of ourselves, the kind of creaturely aspects of ourselves, maybe the creative aspects of ourselves, the emotional aspects of ourselves, don’t maybe have as much space. We default towards pushing those towards the sidelines, so it’s really helpful for Audrey to kind of try and put that back in the centre as something that is sacred to her.

Patrick Deneen. He might be the first person who has said exactly the same thing that I said when I was interviewed for an earlier anniversary episode by Ian Dunt, which is ‘relationships’. So, it’s very interesting to hear someone start from the same sacred value, and coming from a completely… not completely different, but diverse and interesting perspective with a different story. And his is relationships and relationality. And that’s very formed by his Catholic faith and the idea of the Trinity, but he’s clearly just nervous of individualism in all its forms, and that’s what presses that button, when we feel like the sacred has been transgressed.

Inaya said ‘home’. And it was just this beautiful, quite wistful thing, actually, about wanting somewhere to have roots, and foundations, and stability, and security. And how important that is becoming to her as she’s out in the world, and maybe from a generation and a particular background where home hasn’t always been what she’s hoped, or she hasn’t known where to make home.

Wes again said ‘truth’, and this is possibly the most said sacred value. ‘Truth’ on one hand, or ‘love and kindness’ on the other: they come up again, and again, and again. Honesty – “to thine own self be true” – not compromising on what felt important for him. But also alongside that, the ability to compromise on other things, on everything else. Knowing where your boundaries are, and being prepared to go quite far, actually, to meet other people. It really made me think about how, when we understand what is sacred to people, it’s much easier to affirm and acknowledge what’s sacred to them, even if we might be starting from a different place. And how useful actually it is in negotiations, whether you’re a politician, or you’re trying to persuade people in public. Knowing how to acknowledge what is sacred to someone else, and either find a way to connect your two sacred starting points, or to find what is “compromisable” on, and that doesn’t touch on their sacred value, is one of those skills, those ways of listening, that I think can really help us be together.

Martin Shaw. It was really lovely listening to Martin, because this conversion that he’s had is so recent, that it feels like everything in his world has just been turned upside down. And he had many years of knowing what was sacred to him in nature, and in the wild. And now, this sense that there was something kind of bigger and maybe wilder and beyond that all along: that’s now sacred to him. It was a really beautiful thing to listen to all his orientations changing. And maybe he’s not quite knowing how to describe what is sacred to him now.

And Felix – this sense of engaging with other people different from yourself. And then he said something that I think is really key for us in understanding that the sacred is not me: it’s not something that I can choose on my own, that it needs to be something that can call me into question. Later on in the interview, he said, “I thought it was an atheist, but I did have a God and it was myself.” And I think for a lot of people, that instinct about the sacred is what we allow to call ourselves into question. It’s where we lay down our desire to be a kind of fully sovereign, autonomous actor in the world, hopefully towards a healthy sacred which guides us outward into the love of others.

And then Satish said, basically, ‘everything’: all people, all life, all plants, all insects, all animals… And I said in the reflection for his episode, “I sort of don’t know what to do with that.” It is both this beautiful aspiration of reverence for life itself, and it really plays out in how he’s trying to live. And it goes quite against the grain of my non–academic, intuitive sense of what I mean by ‘sacred’, which is something set apart, something that we will protect, an anchor, a lodestar, a foundation. I just don’t know if that can be everything for me. But maybe I just don’t have the moral imagination for that capacious sense of the sacred to feel possible for me.

Reflection on theme one: Storytelling


So we have these very different starting points, these emphases. And then coming out of the interviews, I feel like there’s two major themes as I was listening back and reading back to these guests. One that is always a theme through everything we do, which is divides, and how do we cross these differences and divides. And one which is storytelling. It felt like, completely accidentally, a series about stories. We had one or two people whose job it is to tell stories, Martin and Abi.

And we started with Abi. And this kind of fascinating thing of someone who thinks so fully in stories, that she’s sort of always writing the story of her life. And then, when your life takes such a drastic turn as hers did, how you both be in your story and in your experience, and be narrating it to yourself? And what is helpful about that, and what isn’t? The way that the stories that we tell ourselves shape our expectations of life and our imaginative possibilities. She was telling a story about covenant or committed love, that held her, even when her husband forgot who she was. That the story that I am in, is this relationship. It’s not just “my” story. I’m pinging around, I am telling a story in which Jacob and I are the key players. And we don’t know how it’s going to end but I am going to stay in this story. The power of that kind of loving commitment and attention was so powerful.

We saw it with Martin in this slightly more ‘meta’ way, in that it’s his job to tell stories. He goes around the country telling old stories. And he used this phrase, “a culture worthy of the name knows its stories, knows how to pass down the stories that each new generation are going to need to work out how they’re going to live.” And “what does it mean to be a grown up? Does it mean to live a good life?” And there’s a treasure there, in these oldest forms of knowing. What stories am I exposing myself to, it made me think. How am I letting the stories of the films, and Netflix, and podcasts or novels: in what ways are they shaping my imaginative reality, my ability to make choices, my sense of what is good and what isn’t good?

Audrey obviously is a is a musician, is a songwriter. But again, she had this sense of narrating her life, of making sense of her journey as starting in one story, and then moving into something that didn’t negate or dismiss where she started, but was able to see it as part of, in her language, “a bigger story” of something that could hold it. There’s different chapters in her life. She’s very careful not to say that was a wrong turn or a bad chapter, that her understanding of how it works together narratively is still unfolding.

Dougald I found so helpful for giving me a sense of story of how to live in these times that can, for some of us, feel overwhelming about the scale of the challenge. If the story that we’re telling is purely apocalyptic, and not in the sort of “wise and rich” way that religious traditions tend to tell it, but in a kind of sci–fi dystopia, if that’s the story of the future that we’re telling, where we have no agency and no ability to do anything about it, we might as well just despair. It’s not difficult to slip into that story. I find it all too prevalent in our society. And so, the idea of telling a different story that is open ended, that it’s a bit more mysterious, that is not naive to the scale of the challenge that we face, but invites us really to think, “what kind of characters do we want to play in this?” You know, “what do we want our character arc to be?” Is it headless chicken panicking? Or is it thinking, “Right. What are the skills that I need? What might it mean to love my neighbour in times like these?” That sense of “What is the story we’re telling about the future?” And given that we don’t know how it’s gonna go, maybe we can just pick the most helpful story that helps us be more loving and braver.

And then finally, with Satish. And the thing I did find very challenging and helpful about what he said is, “Really, what is the story that we’re telling him about other people?” I said, “How do we learn to love other people?” You know, “Come on, Satish, tell me something more concrete. How do we learn these skills?” And he said he trusts himself. He trusts that he can do good in the world. Complex for me, I need to sit with that. But then he said, “I trust other people. And when you treat people with trust, they live up to it. I expect them to be generous, and they’re generous. I expect them to be kind, and they’re kind.” And the stories that we tell other people and what we expect of them hugely affects how we show up in conversation with them in real life, in what we put out into the world. And we respond so strongly to these micro–signals with each other. We know if someone’s coming prickly. We know if someone’s coming defensive. We know if someone’s coming shut down, actually, withdrawn. And that can set the whole tone of an encounter. But Satish shows up trusting people, and open, and friendly, and expecting to have a human encounter. And it sounds like in the vast majority of cases, that’s what he gets. And I want to work out how to embody that practice in my own life.

Reflection on theme two: Divides


The second theme is around divides. And we really saw both Inaya and Martin had had these changes of mind, or these changes of heart, conversions… Slipping out of the dominant set of ideas of the tribe to which they had previously felt part, and how hard that is. How easy it is for people to feel betrayed, and how easy it is probably for the person who’s changed their mind or heart to feel a bit dismissive of the thing they’ve left. I think that’s a real temptation. I could hear Audrey trying to avoid that temptation, which I respected about her. The challenge for me was, when someone I know in love, who seems “people like me”, changes their mind, changes their heart, changes their identity on something, can I keep loving them? Can I not make it about me and my narcissism, and my way that my identity is so mediated by the people around me? Can I just stay curious, and open, and empathetic?

Wes I found really refreshing, in that he was, “Of course, you can be friends with people of other parties! It’s not as bad as it looks.” Wes was just quite a matter of fact about “This shouldn’t be that hard. Of course, we can be friends with people who are different from us.” And maybe it’s because in politics, you do have to compromise, and you do have to connect. It was noticeable that he didn’t name Jeremy Corbyn. I think we need to not play down just how much tribal intensity there was about him in different periods of the Labour Party. And I’m interested in how you kind of keep both a thick skin and an open–heartedness. If in fact, that is what he is able to do, because you never know from one interview.

With Felix and Black Elephant, clearly these themes have come up again and again. What they’ve learned in Black Elephant is: put people in a room, or at least in a Zoom Room, and use good questions. Like “what is sacred?”, but also, get people talking about their childhoods, get people talking about what brings them joy, get people talking about where there’s something that’s a kind of knot or a struggle in their life. Don’t go straight for the way, the thing, that you’re different about; go for anything that’s going to help the whole human person come into view. And those questions at their best elicit a level of vulnerability, elicit a level of humanity that make it much easier to like each other, frankly. I’ve experienced again, and again, in one of those rooms or others, someone who I’m feeling a bit “Hmm, don’t like you” – which, let’s be clear, happens a lot. Like, I hope it does to everyone: reacting against whatever tribal signifier. They’ll say something about something hard in their life, or something they’ve struggled with, or something they’re worried about, and my heart softens instantly. It’s almost like magic, that you see the child in someone, or you see the human in someone, and it gets you out of fight–or–flight enough to see them as a whole human person. That vulnerability… I hope it’s part of what this podcast is doing. You can hear where people’s lives have not always been easy, where they’ve found things difficult. And it helps us soften towards each other, to keep soft hearts towards each other.

Patrick’s much more pragmatic on divides, in a way that I found really interesting. And what I wish I’d asked is, “Is this just in politics?” Because in politics, he was very much like, “Yup, slightly a zero–sum game. You’re going to have a fight, someone’s going to win. That’s what politics is.” And not bothered by that, seemingly at all. I’d be really interested to know if that shows up in the rest of his life. Like, how much he does have friends from different tribes, or how much it feels like he doesn’t feel the need, actually, that he thinks it’s a kind of more natural and normal situation that we sought a bit into people with these similar values.

And then finally, Satish. This radical love, this sense that you get from him that I don’t think he really believes in divides anymore, and therefore just acts as if they don’t exist. And what it might mean, to get there, what it might mean to embody the non–violent tradition which has clearly learned so much through that childhood as a Jain monk, as a very young child. That the ‘love of others’ is this primary thing won’t be something that all of us are interested in growing in, but I’m interested in growing in from my tradition, from the Christian non–violence tradition. What does it mean to seek to love the Other at that relentless, universal level? Is it even possible? Not for me, yet, but I hope I’ve got more time to learn it.


Much is sitting with me from this series. I hope that some things are sitting with you, and I’d be so interested to know what they are. Please do get in touch with reflections, reactions… If you radically disagree with me on anything, as long as you express it sort of broadly politely, I’d love to hear it. I find it really helpful, and interesting, and provocative. And you can find me on Instagram, on Twitter. You’re all digitally literate, you’ll know how to find me. And as always, please do rate and review the podcast and share it with a friend. We’ll be taking a break now over the summer, back with an already really exciting list of guests lining up. Meanwhile, thank you so much for listening to The Sacred.


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Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Elizabeth Oldfield

Posted 19 July 2023

Podcast, Politics, The Sacred, Tribalism, Trust


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