One Story or Another

In every period of history, there have been those who were nostalgic about a lost Golden Age, who believed we had reached a pinnacle and were now on the decline, who complained this was the worst generation ever and the problems we face are worse than anything that came before, who declared there were no new major discoveries or inventions left to be made, who concluded that it was the end of history or maybe even the End Times itself.

On the other side, there are those who see all of history as endless progress and the future bright and shiny with possibilities and utopian visions, who spin the present as the best time to be alive or at least not so bad if you keep a positive attitude, who state with conviction that we make our own reality.

But the fact of the matter is simply that the world continues on, no matter what we think or believe, hope or dread. Sure, the world can be shitty but it has its upsides as was also true in the past, just in different ways. And the future flickers with as many dark shadows to obscure our vision as bright flames to light the way.

We humans have always been in permanent mode of survival and innovation with brief periods of seeming stability and security, until the norm of drastic change returns to shake things up again. From one crisis to another, ever pushing humanity into new territory of the unknown, clever monkeys reacting to the next threat or opportunity. We never fully grasp either where we’ve come from nor where we’re going. We aren’t captains of this ship.

We are but one species among many in a complex world beyond our ken, in a universe that stretches into infinity. We don’t understand a fraction of it and yet the world goes on just fine in our ignorance. Heck, we are barely conscious of our own actions, living mostly in a state of mindless momentum of habit. Entire civilizations rise and fall, again and again and again, with every generation feeling unique and special. Nonetheless, someday our species will go extinct, and no one will miss us nor will there be an empty space where we once existed, all traces disappearing with the incoming tide.

That is neither good nor bad. It just is. Not that this simple truth will stop us from getting excited about the next thing that comes along, whether real or imagined. If nothing else, we humans are great storytellers and there is no more attentive listener than the very person spinning their preferred tale of wonder or woe. So we will go on speaking to fill the silence, for as long as there is breath left in us. More than anything else, we fear the end of our own chatter, in love as we are with our own voices.

It’s the act of storytelling that matters. Not the specific story. For essentially it is the same story being told, with humanity at the center. The storytelling is our humanity. There is nothing else to us. At least, we are good at what we do. No other species, being, or object in the universe tells a story like us.

18 thoughts on “One Story or Another

  1. I agree…have always been in permanent mode…Narrative…humanity as a story bound in human skin. Steinbeck seemed passionately grounded. Lovecraft seemed alien to his soil. Lots of humans are better storytellers than they were. James Michener for one…recognized such humanesque points at a symposium in California the 1970s. At a podium. (Are you a bot Benjamin?)
    He was able to stand up alone and storytell and be counted as one man.
    Tom Robbins. Extraordinary writer.
    Robbins crafts novel sentences.
    Michener made sentient novels.

  2. silly things like that we make our own reality

    Well…. “You create the reality you know” is actually a true statement, according to all the wisest teachers who’ve ever lived. It is a bit of an enigmatic statement, though.

    We (i.e. you and I) didn’t create the reality we now know as the Megamachine (or The Matrix, among the myriad other names for it), certainly. That is also true. We were, in fact, born into a “reality” created centuries ago, and it’s the errors inherent in that foundational concept of reality that we’re grappling with today. We are, in effect, members of “the seventh generation” living in a “consciousness structure” we neither created nor chose for ourselves — a “consciousness structure” established long before any of us were ever born.

    We are, however, being presented with a choice: to perpetuate (likely to our doom) that overwheening “mental-rational consciousness structure” or “transcend” it.

    Thus far, of course, we’ve failed miserably at the task of “transcending” it or, at least, much of our so-called “leadership” has — likely because they’re even more steeped, and even trained, in it than we are — and, worse still, appear to be entirely unaware of the fact, despite the earlier efforts of “postmodernists” to point out the flaws of basing absolutely everything humanity does on an “either/or” logic that is not even remotely tenable given what we know about the true reality underpinning our very existence: that the Web of Life is delicately and intricately interwoven, interconnected and interdependent.

    Seriously. How could we not know (or ignore) that? Intuitively, if no other way. (That is, of course, what slays me about those questions: “Will climate change affect humans?” And, especially, “will climate change affect me?” That we even have to ask such questions is beyond the pale.)

    Anyway…. Back on point. We’re not merely creatures of habit and “reactivity” or “clever monkeys,” though we appear to be easily led to believe that we are. We are essentially responsive creatures, as Rosenstock-Huessy might say. A move away from the incessant reactivity — both to the crises we face and, perhaps especially, to each other — we’re witnessing today to an attitude of responsiveness would be an excellent starting point in transcending all the nonsense.

    In sum: I guess I wouldn’t count us out as a species just yet.

    • I changed that wording. That wording didn’t fit what I was trying to convey. It wasn’t a fair way of putting it. There is nothing silly about it, or at least nothing more silly than anything else. It is perfectly human. Then the question is what does it mean to be human. My disagreement is this. The ‘you’ is just another story. So ‘you’ don’t create reality. Rather, reality creates ‘you’. That is to say, the story tells us and we the storyteller emerge in the telling. That is my Jaynesian take on things, whether or not it is wise. It is what makes sense to me.

      I would say that egoic consciousness is that “mental-rational consciousness structure”. I don’t know about transcending it exactly. But I’ve long had the sense that it isn’t fundamentally real, much less inevitable. There are other ways of being, not just according to a Jaynesian interpretation of ancient societies but also simply looking at other societies in the world right now, as seen in the anthropological record. It all depends on what kind of ‘we’ we are talking about. We are no doubt clever monkeys, not merely. But clever monkeys who, in telling stories, can become all kinds of selves, not that we are talented in telling new stories to replace the stories we cling to. We are so clever that we get lost in our stories and take them for reality.

      Yes, we are potentially responsive. That is another story that could be told, though not the story that is at present being told by most. This goes back to my sense that we are not only in a reactionary era but in a reactionary society, lost in reaction even if not permanently lost. I’d be all for telling another story. What I doubt is that we are in control, as our ego tells us we are. I often suspect that the ego is not a god worth worshiping, despite the power and persuasion of the tales it tells. The hope is that, as we see from the past, every story comes to an end. And as long as we’re still breathing, another story will take its place.

      • So ‘you’ don’t create reality. Rather, reality creates ‘you’.

        That’s rather “either/or,” don’t you think? Depends what you mean by “you.”

        Respondeo etsi mutabor—‘I respond although I will be changed’

        Something tells me you would love Rosenstock. Could be wrong.

        • To be honest, no I don’t think it is “either/or” at all. That would be another story that could be told, of course. But how could there be “either/or” without the egoic consciousness that divides things into dualities? Societies that lack our rigid psychological boundaries don’t think that way or identify that way. I’ve seen the references to Rosenstock-Huessy and have made a mental note to read him sometime.

          • This is where my wisdom is limited. I’m just some schmuck trying to get by in life. Decades of depression maybe have created a distorted view, specifically about ‘control’. I’ve fallen so far into depressive hell holes that I was overcome by abulia, flattened affect, and depersonalization. The memory of this is still fresh enough in my memory to slant my way of thinking.

            So I can’t speak about ‘mastery’ in any meaningful sense, though I understand it as an abstract concept. There are certain words that seem to make a lot of sense to others that simply don’t connect in my own experience. Not that my limited and dysfunctional experience should be taken more seriously than anyone else’s. But it is the only experience I have, for the time being. I go by what I ‘know’.

            But I am familiar with what wise teachers say. I’m not sure I aspire to wisdom, though. The best I can do is to speak honestly and sincerely, to tell it straight. And that is the kind of thinker I’m attracted to — can’t say at this point I’m looking for a teacher. I’m as likely to listen to the unwisdom of Thomas Ligotti’s philosophical pessimism and William S. Burrough’s dark gnosticism (not to mention Philip K. Dick’s crazy visions) as I am to the respectable wisdom of great teachers, from Jiddu Krishnamurti to Rumi. Maybe I’m undiscerning.

          • This is where my wisdom is limited….

            If anyone were to ask me, none of us are “wise…” alone. That’s where all that interconnectedness comes into play.

            We like to think of ourselves as “smart.” In fact, I suggested that the tagline of the late Newsvine be changed from “Get smarter here” to “Get wiser here.”

            Needless to say, its founder wasn’t much interested in that. He was only interested in getting a “social media” upstart up and running so he could sell it to MSNBC and make a killing, so to speak. But the “connections” I made there will last a lifetime, regardless.

          • Oops. Correction. I actually suggested that it be changed to “Get wise here.” (A little play on words. What can I say? It was, for the most part, a “playful,” in the most creative sense, site at its inception. At least, in beta. Later…well, not so much.)

      • Good question. My sense is that PKD saw stories and reality as being intertwined, that we live our stories. He used that as a theme in how characters’ thoughts and expectations could determine their experiential ‘reality’.

        I see that in another way with A Scanner Darkly. The protagonist’s narrative voice splits and breaks down. But depending on which narrative he is in at the moment he maintains that particular identity he inhabits in that moment.

        Yet that psychological understanding alone wouldn’t have satisfied PKD. In the end, he was a gnostic who believed that there was a real reality to be directly contacted, even if for the time being we earthly mortals find ourselves in a trap. No worries, God can be found in the garbage like Jesus who descended into hell or one of those various gnostic figures who fell into the created world. We may need reminding or rather unforgetting, but reality is always at hand.

        There is a highly personal sense of ‘reality’ in PKD’s vision, maybe a combined influence of Protestantism and Gnosticism. It is a personal relationship with or personal knowing of the divine. Not that PKD ever offered a singular coherent theology.

      • Everybody has their own story, but some stories are more fictional than others.
        As someone else said, it is possible to ignore reality. but it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.

  3. “No other species, being, or object in the universe tells a story like us.” As far as we know–A good article for perspective. Times have been worse, and are far worse in some places, than now. I remember worse times, at least in the US&A..

    • It’s easy to bring to mind some really bad times in human existence. That goes for all countries and in all eras. But one doesn’t have to look back that far to find examples of mass suffering and death or various forms of panic-driven crisis. Even as mass hysteria goes, our present has nothing on past times. What is surprising at present is how unconcerned most people seem — it’s a bit shocking, in fact.

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