StoriesPart of Inside Our Books

How stories bring us together

Ours is an age of contagious anxiety. We can feel overwhelmed by the events around us, by injustice, by suffering, by an endless feeling of crisis. In ‘How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division’, Booker Prize-nominated novelist and activist Elif Shafak makes an uplifting plea for conscious optimism. In this extract she considers how hard it is to be heard in our divided world, but how listening to each other can nurture wisdom, connection and empathy.

Words by Elif Shafak and photography by Steven Pocock

  • Book extract
Photographic full length portrait of a woman outside in a woodland scene. She is walking along a rough footpath towards the camera, fingers loosely clasped together. She is looking off to the left. To her left are a series of tree trunks and surrounding the path and the in the background is the green of the grass and leaves of the trees.
Elif Shafak in Hyde Park, London, Photo: Steven Pocock. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

As the coronavirus swept round the globe killing hundreds of thousands, putting millions out of work and shattering life as we knew it, board signs appeared randomly in public parks across London. “When all this is over, how do you want the world to be different?” the signs asked.

What “all this” meant was not explicit in the question; passers-by were expected to work out for themselves what it implied – this sudden disruption of our daily routine, this sense of being caught in the swell of uncertainty and the fear of what is to come, this major global health crisis with long-term economic, social and possibly political consequences, this tunnel that we, as humanity, must go through without any easy guesses as to how or when it would end or whether another outbreak of a viral disease might happen again in the near future.

The boards were deliberately left blank so that underneath the question people could write their own answers, and many had. Of all the comments scribbled hastily there, one in particular stayed with me. Somebody had etched out in bold letters, “I want to be heard.”

When all this is over I want to live in a different world where I can be heard.

It was a personal cry. But, in many ways, it felt like a collective cry too. “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?” asked the poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke in his ‘Duino Elegies’, written and published in the earlier part of the 20th century.

Photographic diptych. Both images show a wooded parkland scene with a rough footpath snaking away into the distance. The paths are flanked by rough grassland and trees. Each scene is lit by strong sunlight which in parts is turned into dappled shadows onto the ground by the leaf canopy.
Hyde Park, London, Photo: Steven Pocock. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?”

Unheard voices

It was a different time back then. Today, in the 21st century, in a deeply divided and increasingly tangled world, craving dignity and equality, overwhelmed by the speed of change and the acceleration of technology, our shared feeling is, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the humans’ hierarchies?”

People who have much to say, a distinctive story to tell, often do not do so because they fear their words will fall on deaf ears. They feel excluded from political power and, to a large extent, from political and civic participation. Even if they were to shout their grievances from the rooftops of Westminster – or Brussels or Washington or New Delhi – they doubt it would have the slightest impact on public policy.

Not only management and authority, power and wealth, but also data and knowledge are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few – and a growing number of citizens feel left out, not so much forgotten as never noticed in the first place. As their disillusionment deepens, so does distrust even in the most basic institutions. More than half of the people living in democracies today say their voice is ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ heard.

Photographic diptych. The image on the left shows a close up of a woman's left hand laid flat against the vertical surface of a tree trunk. The image on the right shows a close up of leaves in a tree, backlit by the sun. In the distance can be seen the out of focus leaves at the top of the tree canopy and the blue of the sky beyond.
Elif Shafak in Hyde Park, London, Photo: Steven Pocock. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

"People who have much to say, a distinctive story to tell, often do not do so because they fear their words will fall on deaf ears."

If this is the general mood in the relatively democratic countries, imagine how much higher that percentage would be in authoritarian regimes where there is no transparency and a single narrative is imposed from above, stifling any form of dissent. Added together, that is a lot of voiceless people.

And the biggest irony is that all this is happening at a time when we as humans – regardless of race, gender, religion, class or ethnicity – are supposed to be more connected and empathetic and free than ever before, with far more opportunities at our disposal to express ourselves than our grandparents could have dreamed of, given the proliferation of both digital and media platforms. How is it possible then that in an era when social media was expected to give everyone an equal voice, so many continue to feel voiceless?

Silenced and alienated

To be deprived of a voice means to be deprived of agency over our own lives. It also means to slowly but systematically become alienated from our own journeys, struggles and inner transformations, and begin to view even our most subjective experiences as though through someone else’s eyes, an external gaze.

Photographic diptych. The image on the left shows a parkland scene in bright sunlight with the distant figure of a woman standing in the centre of the frame. She is surrounded by rough grassland. In the distance are large trees and in the foreground she is frames by the branches of more trees. The image on the right shows a wooded parkland scene made up of rough grassland and trees. The scene is in full sun, with some areas cast into dappled shade by the tree canopy.
Elif Shafak in Hyde Park, London, Photo: Steven Pocock. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).

"To be deprived of a voice means to be deprived of agency over our own lives."

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” wrote the poet, author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. In the present circumstances, for a whole variety of reasons, a similar agony is experienced by many across the globe, east and west, north and south. Stories bring us together; untold stories keep us apart. 

We are made of stories – those that have happened, those that are still happening at this moment in time, and those that are shaped purely in our imagination through words, images, dreams and an endless sense of wonder about the world around us and how it works. Unvarnished truths, innermost reflections, fragments of memory, wounds unhealed.

Not to be able to tell your story, to be silenced and shut out, therefore, is to be dehumanised. It strikes at your very existence; it makes you question your sanity, the validity of your version of events. It creates a profound and existential anxiety in us. In losing our voice, something in us dies.

About the contributors

Photograph of Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak

Author
elifsafak.com.tr

Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish writer, storyteller, essayist, academic, public speaker and activist. She writes in both Turkish and English, and has published 17 books, 11 of which are novels. Her work has been translated into 50 languages. Her latest novel, ‘10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World’, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and RSL Ondaatje Prize, and chosen as Blackwell’s Book of the Year. An advocate for women’s rights, LGBT rights and freedom of speech, Shafak is an inspiring public speaker and twice TED Global speaker, each time receiving a standing ovation. In 2017 she was chosen by Politico as one of the 12 people “who will give you a much-needed lift of the heart”.

Photograph of Steven Pocock

Steven Pocock

Photographer

Steven is a photographer at Wellcome. His photography takes inspiration from the museum’s rich and varied collections. He enjoys collaborating on creative projects and taking them to imaginative places.