Earlier this week I was writing an endorsement for Martin Grunburg’s upcoming book, Everything is a F*ing Story, and it had me reflecting, once again, on the importance of the stories we tell ourselves – how they create our lives, our societies, our relationships, and our conflicts. It has never seemed more important to remind ourselves that it’s all a story.
There’s nothing wrong with it being a story. As Martin points out and as Yuval Noah Harari before him has also pointed out, stories are how humans navigate the world. Our sense-making process consists of constantly telling ourselves stories about who we are and about how the world works. Stories are not exclusive of science – the scientific method is itself a story about how to pursue truth.
The problem comes when we forget that it’s all a story, when we mistake our stories for reality, and therefore any stories that run counter to our stories must be wrong, and the people who believe them must be idiots and/or evil. Different groups of people look at the same situation and, influenced by their cultural upbringing and the social waters they swim in, arrive at different conclusions.
Apparently opposing stories underlie every hot button issue in the world, always have done, and pending a radical shift in consciousness, always will. For example:
Abortion: some believe that a conscious human being exists from the moment of conception, others believe consciousness arrives later. Some believe the rights of the unborn child should take precedence, others believe the rights of the mother should.
Same-sex marriage: often connected with a much bigger story about a divine being, and what he/she deems to be acceptable in the way of sexual relationships.
Covid vaccine: vaccines save lives, or vaccines make little difference to infection rates and/or cause adverse effects. Each side chooses the data that supports its story. As with same-sex marriage, this dispute is connected to questions of authority – in this case, the question of whether pharmaceutical companies can be trusted.
Climate change: CO2 causes climate change, or CO2 is a consequence of climate change? Or climate change isn’t happening at all?
War in Ukraine: Putin caused it, or NATO caused it? The US is or isn’t involved? It’s about power, profits, or resources? (Incidentally, NATO is a story, Ukraine is a story, the West has a story about Putin, and Putin has stories about himself.)
And Brexit, populism, critical race theory, etc etc etc. You get the gist.
The Tall-Tale Trilogy
The problem is threefold, as I see it.
- Much is unknown or even unknowable, and/or some people don’t trust the authority presenting the dominant narrative.
- In the absence of certainty, we fall back on interpretation, and then believe our interpretation to be true, and any other interpretation to be false.
- We fail to accept that other people have rational reasons for believing their interpretation.
The brain loves certainty, and dislikes ambiguity. It doesn’t like to say, “I don’t know”.
The ego-mind likes to be right, and to make others wrong. It doesn’t like to say, “I could be mistaken”, or even “we could both be right”, or more likely, “we could both be wrong”.
Reality is complicated. The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems that we never have access to the full truth. Subjective opinion always enters into the equation at some point.
Look at the myriads of ways that humans have been wrong in the past – about cosmology, medicine, and political ideologies, to name just a few. What makes us think that we are any smarter now? We may have more information, but more data generally increases ambiguity rather than diminishing it.
How about if we just accepted that Truth is elusive, and saw disagreements as a shared quest to get closer to it, rather than getting our knickers in a twist when people disagree with us?
What if, instead of shouting them down or deplatforming them, we invited our opponents to come join us to talk so both sides understand each other better?
What might happen if we let go of the story that they are deplorables or idiots, and instead respected them as rational human beings with a different viewpoint?
What if we accepted our own fallibility, and embraced curiosity and collaboration, rather than condemnation and judgement?