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On Stories

2021-12-12 - based on prior thoughts; edited for linguistic clarity.

It seems to me that, in this day and age and place, what we’re lacking is a story. People like stories. They tell them who they are, and where they came from, and where they're going — not as a matter of fact, but as a matter of frame. A network of stories tells a person where they fit in life; what’s right and wrong; what they should aim for; what they should refuse to do at any cost.

In this current era and this current location, we don’t have that. There is no wider sense of “who-we-are”, and people, in my experience, really need that. Even I need that, although I’m the first to admit I find my stories in stranger places than most. So people look around for it. Some join nationalist movements: here is who we are, the people of this country that is better than the others. Some join racist movements: this is who we are, the people who by virtue of our skin colour are the better people. Some join religions, another old, tried and tested means of determining who we are: we, the people of this god or pantheon; we who know the true way. Some pick up with any one of a number of cults or movements or supposedly political groups. Most people have lots — who we are is a web, not a single story. We are the supporters-of-the-best-sports-team and members-of-our-neighbourhood-group and so on and so forth. And these are the stories: it doesn’t matter if that “best” sports team has never won a single match/race/whatever. It’s the story, and the sharing of it. It doesn't have to be true. Arguably, it was never really meant to be true.

As I’ve already alluded to above, many of the stories offered for who we are are not exactly universally socially acceptable in the current society. But it doesn’t have an alternative. Who are we? We are people like all people, but we are not the-people-of-the-great-world, because there is too much to be done railing against this-part or that-part of the world. So that is not our story. Who are we? We are people like all people, but although we are like all people we must also be the-bad-people for the deeds of our ancestors? That is not a palatable story, for all that people will sometimes swallow “original sin”. Who are we? Perhaps we are the-people-who-share-so-that-none-shall-want? But every time this is tested those with more say “no, no, I shall not give up all that is mine”. We are not those who share if those who have most will not do so. Perhaps we are those-who-accept-all-things-in-others? Some people can be this. But they cannot accept those-who-do-not-accept, and there are limits indeed (most believe, firmly including me) to what should be accepted.

And so we are lost. Fractured and clustered and seeking a story, a framework not for what is real but for what is in our heads. It has very little to do with reality. We find one or another, and we cling to it fiercely.

Consider the story. Some little story you were told when you were young, perhaps. It is only a small part of you, a tiny part. But it is a part nonetheless, a fragment of the framework on which you hang your self.

Consider now that someone comes to you: no, they say, you cannot have this story, you cannot have this piece of yourself, because it is bad and wrong. Do you say, oh dear, I shall give away my frame of self? Or do you feel attacked?

It does not matter if their words are true. Because it was never about truth, but about the story, about who-you-are and where-you-belong and where-you-will-go. We “enlightened” — we all think we are enlightened, after all, even though no two of us fully agree — want all to use only the stories that we do. If only, we think, they see that they are wrong, then obviously they too will know the truth and be enlightened. But it’s not about truth, but value and self-worth and self, and regardless of how terrible someone else’s story may be to you, it is still their story. They will defend it as fiercely as you would your own.

To replace a story, you must (usually) first offer a new one. One that still calls to those you would tell it to. Perhaps it is a version of their story with the sharper edges filed off; perhaps it is their story but with the corners sharpened to a razor point. Perhaps it is something quite different. But it must be a tale that they would tell. You tell it back and forth between you, and in time the old will fade, for we all let go of the stories that are no longer relevant to us. There: a step has been taken, and now another new story can be offered to this changed framework of self.

But it was never — at any point, it was never — about truth. Truth and stories are not the same, but we conflate them, and in doing so endanger both. “This is true”, we say bluntly, and in doing so we force the person to reject either their frame of their own self or, in the extreme, the concept of truth itself. Reality does not care what you think; the universe will go on spinning either way. But people care most deeply what they think, to the point that they will defy reality itself for it, and that has value, and that should be seen to have value.

If we recognise from the beginning that there is truth, and it has value, and there are stories, and they have value, and that the two are separate, at least in part, then we may yet escape this deadlock. Consider the story, the story that may well be all some people truly feel they have in the world. Can we not accept that it does not matter if the story is true, but instead it is what it tells us that matters? So that, side by side, we may know true things (gravity works, water is wet), and tell stories where those things are different, or changed, or just do not matter to the story. No story will ever be perfectly free of all flaws, even the ones you tell yourself. Story and truth can, even must, coexist, but we, tellers and listeners alike, must always remember that even when the story speaks of truth, it is not a statement of reality but rather a framework for what the teller would say should be true, or ideal, or right.

Perhaps that will help.

But what do I know, after all? I'm just a storyteller. Of course this is how I would tell a story…