Ben Okri is a Nigerian poet and author who was one of the youngest writers to win the Booker Prize in 1991 for his novel The Famished Road. I recently finished reading this book and it now numbers among my all-time favorites and so I poked around YouTube searching for an interview with him. And found his 2016 Ted le Rosey talk whose main ideas I want to share with you here. The interweaving theme throughout his entire talk is the centrality of story: the stories of the world and the stories we tell ourselves.
Ben Okri begins by stating that we are stories: we are born into stories and are born from stories, from an ocean of stories. Even when we are sleep, we are in a story. He defines story as the perpetual consciousness of reality. In fact, he says, story changes reality.
Next, he says that there are two stories that run our lives. Our public story: our goals, how we introduce and project ourselves to people. And another story that is more powerful and mysterious, which is our secret story. This secret story is embedded in our consciousness and most often we are not even aware of it. It is this secret story that can sabotage or strengthen our public story.
According to Ben Okri, we may seem confident, but in a crisis, it is this secret story that takes over and can often surprise us. This is true for individuals, and also for nations. He uses the example of his birth country Nigeria, which wants to be powerful but then at a critical moment goes backwards instead. And also the nation where he now lives, England, and refers to the surprise vote around Brexit.
Behind Ben Okri on the stage is an enormous photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. He does not mention him at all during his fifteen-minute talk, but he does talk about how some countries have a public story that is all about justice for all, but then have a police force that goes after some kinds of people more than others. It is their secret story, the one that many people are not even consciously aware of but nonetheless is so imbedded into us that it shapes our reactions and decisions, especially in times of crisis and unease.
I find this concept of our two stories – our public story and our secret story – intriguing and helpful for understanding both ourselves and the community or nation we live in. Since seeing this Ted talk, I have been interrogating myself around what my secret story may be, and whether it helps or hinders what Okri calls our “great story”, which is our life purpose.
The last year that we have all lived through – so different than any other due to the global health issue – seems to have been a crisis point that has helped to reveal more clearly and definitively these secret stories within us, and within our communities and nations. If part of our secret story is around fear, then this may have become intensified. If part of our secret story revolves around issues with authority and independence, then we may question how anyone can tell us to wear a mask. And if part of our secret story involves needing to stay very busy and engaged with many people and activities, then we may find it hard to be confined to our houses and unable to carry out the kind of lifestyle we prefer.
But our secret stories are not always ones that drag us down or sabotage us. There are also secret stories that can uplift us and help us to achieve our “great story”, whatever that may be. This is how some people can accomplish their goals, their true goals (not their public story), while others find themselves waylaid in their life journey.
And we each, as does our nation, have the potential to look deep within ourselves, to ask ourselves truthfully and with great insight what secret story had been guiding us and if we want to change this story, in order to change our lives. This last year has given us all opportunities to review and reconsider who we are and what is truly important and meaningful for us; it has also shown us with great clarity aspects of our national secret story that are hard to deny.
Ben Okri finished his talk by saying that confronting and healing our secret stories can transform them from viruses of sabotage to viruses of light. As many of us are getting vaccinated to stop a virus that can cause physical sickness and death, may we also work on transforming our secret stories so they become viruses of light – light in our hearts, in our lives, and for all life.