‘The stories we choose set us against each other’
“What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of those events affect us.”
– Rabih Alameddine
Consider how stunningly important this can be - that stories of events, the ones others tell us and the ones we tell ourselves, may matter more than the events themselves.
Instead of the dialogue ending and confrontational dismissal of events that do not fit into one’s worldview as “fake news,” what if we could honestly ask what stories are we telling others and more importantly ourselves about what is happening in our communities, our nation and the world at large.
Consider, for example, immigration. One story is that our southern border is out of control and that our country is under invasion by drug dealing, job-stealing, non-English speaking people of color. “Others.” But these ‘others’ are fellow human beings with remarkable stories. Each one could be a movie. Stories of escape from dire living conditions and travel through jungles, fording streams with a child on your shoulders, climbing mountains for the dream of a better life for that child .
The difference between these stories is of greater importance than the difference between Fox News and MSNBC. It is a difference that defines our present and shapes our future.
Immigration is just an easy example of the vast difference stories of real events can have. As to that example, let me be clear that I am not suggesting that events don’t call for responses. The stories we tell shape what those responses will be, however. When vastly different stories each have elements of truth we can find ourselves living in a Babel like world where the stories we choose to believe set us against each other needlessly.
People look for what will support the story they want to tell - how events fit into their own personal story. Someone who feels like a victim tells stories that support their claim of victimization. In some ways, the stories you tell about events say more about your own self than about the events themselves. In that sense, we should invoke our best selves in choosing what stories we tell. We might begin with an appreciation of how unique our status as story tellers is.
Sam Keen observed that, “as far as we know, the planet earth is the only place that contains a kaleidoscope of multifarious forms of life, many of which are conscious, some self conscious, and one of which tells stories about itself.”
In thinking about and choosing what stories of events we tell, Yann Martel gave us a powerful example in the Life of Pi. That wonderful novel and movie tells a story of Pi Patel, a young man surviving the sinking of a ship transporting zoo animals in which a bengal tiger shares his lifeboat. His first lesson, when rescuers doubted his story was about belief:
“ ‘We just don’t believe there was a tiger living in your lifeboat.’
“If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe? ….Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”
The more pertinent lesson is as to choosing the best story. He presents his rescuers with a more ordinary story of how he survived and then asks the following:
“ ‘In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.’
‘Yes that’s true.’
‘So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer?’ Which is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without animals?’
Mr. Okamato: ‘That’s an interesting question.”
Mr. Chiba: ‘The story with animals’
Mr. Okamoto: ‘ Yes. The Story with animals is the better story.’
Pi Patel : ‘Thank You. And so it goes with God.’
Applying this lesson to my immigration example (and once again please remember it is just an example) I would suggest that, yes the events require response. Perhaps someday a future functioning Congress will address a just and humane immigration reform and in the meantime our criminal justice agencies will at least stem the flow of fentanyl into our communities. But, in the meantime the better story is that of the courage of the young parents fleeing lands where there is no hopeful future for their children, fording streams, climbing mountains and braving jungles to reach the shining city on the hill.
In recognizing that is the better story we necessarily must realize how unbelievably lucky we are to be born in the United States of America.
We should also understand that we don’t only live inside this received world of the greatest country on the planet. We also inhabit a world of stories – myths by which we try to make sense of the way our own lives either conflict with or are in harmony with the world at large.
Being conscious of what stories we choose is of great import.
Steven Spellman lives in Noank.
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