In college I worked at a Ramada Inn motel. At that time Ramada had a policy that rooms had to be redone (new carpet, new paint, new mattress, etc.) every three years. That meant that perfectly good carpet was being ripped out of rooms on a regular basis. A couple of years after I worked there the motel was purchased by a new group and rebranded with a chain whose standards weren’t quite so high, resulting in lower operating costs.
Motel rooms are a lot like infrastructure (roads, bridges, power lines, etc.). Infrastructure only lasts so many years before it needs to be updated. Of course updating infrastructure is far more expensive than redecorating a motel room and the stakes are higher. An out of date motel room might lead to a bad night of sleep; an out of date bridge might lead to death and disaster.
In 2007 an interstate bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. People died; it caused traffic snarls for months. It also led to Iowa (the state directly to the south) to perform a major triage operation on the state’s bridges. A shocking number were found below standard. The state is still in the process of replacing bridges that were declared unsafe ten years ago. (It makes me think twice about driving the backroads whenever I drive east!)
Underlying the story of the bridges lies a pattern of neglect, corruption, graft, and broken promises. When a government builds a road system there is an implied promise to maintain that road system. That almost never happens as it ought because proper maintenance and replacement is hard and expensive and it requires a great deal of attentiveness. Governments, like the new motel owners, are always tempted to (and too frequently do) change the rules or change the franchise so that the maintenance can be reduced.
Thus the story of road systems can be generalized and applied to just about every human endeavor. We can call this generalization a meta-story. Whether we consider infrastructure, famine, flood, disease, or violence, underlying those stories is almost certainly, and to varying degrees, a story of neglect, corruption, graft, or broken promises. There is a sidewalk where I park across the street from church. It is so long since it has been cleared that the detritus from the overhead tree is turning to soil. Neglect. It’s the same meta-story as the bridge, the New Orleans floods, or the South Sudan famine. Because this meta-story is rooted in the human soul, it cannot be eradicated.
We use meta-stories to subconsciously organize our lives and make sense of our experiences. Meta-stories provide the connecting thread that help us navigate an otherwise meaningless jumble of things. There is nothing new about them either. They are closely related to Aristotle’s forms and grow out of Carl Jung’s archetypes. Certain meta-stories become primary in a society and provide a sense of shared experience and shared values. The above story about corruption is one of the archetypical stories from the Bible and has shaped Christianity over the centuries. While it is one of the easiest meta-stories to grasp, it is not the only one. I will explore that further in the next essay.