If our perception of the natural world is imperfect, the enormous diversity we observe regarding human values, morality, social relationships, sense of meaning, and religion should not be surprising. Though these perceptions vary widely from one person to another, the process through which they are established and maintained is universal. The simple truth is that our concepts of the essential aspects of human experience are shaped by the stories we hear, modify, create, internalize, and share with others.
There is no way to overstate the role stories play in this process. They can inspire us, inform us, frighten us, or fill us with courage. They are such an integral part of our lives that we often fail to recognize their prevalence in our daily experience. Frequently we think we are merely sharing information, but typically it takes the form of storytelling.
Stories are so fundamental to our communication because they incorporate key elements of our thought processes. The very way that we think is referred to as symbolic consciousness. Thinking is really a matter of stringing symbols together. Typically, our thoughts consist of words, visual images, auditory memories, feelings and other sensory perceptions. As we attempt to convey these thoughts to others, the story provides a logical format for presenting all of these symbols in a meaningful way.
Stories come to us in a variety of constructs. They can be casual exchanges or, very formal such as books, poems, music, theater, movies, magazines, and so on. The format may vary, but the result is the same; ideas and feelings are being communicated, not merely information.
Leaders seeking to establish common beliefs and values within groups recognize the important role stories play in social cohesion. Religion has utilized story-telling for thousands of years to convey their unique cosmology, values, and behavioral expectations for their religious community. Nations generate stories about their greatness, moral purity, and superiority over other nations. Political parties tell tall tales that extol their virtues and demonize their opponents.
The stories that we hear from outside sources play a vital role in our interaction with others. However, the most important tales in our lives are the ones that we are constantly telling ourselves. Those stories lie just below our conscious awareness and function much like an operating system in a computer. They influence our perceptions, likes and dislikes, our decisions, attitudes, actions and reactions.
I believe that there are actually three core stories that are continually engaged in unconscious interaction. The significance we attach to each one determines its influence on the composition of the others. Together they comprise our understanding of who we are and where we fit into the universe.
1. The Cosmic Story
Where did we come from? Was the universe created by an omniscient and omnipotent divine being? If so, does that being still play an active role in the universe? If so, is He merciful and compassionate, or demanding and wrathful? Does life extend beyond the physical death of humans? Is there a natural unifying force that produces order in the cosmos? If so, am I able to harmonize with that force in a way that will influence events in my life? Perhaps it doesn’t matter what I believe about the cosmos. Maybe all of this is nothing more than a random occurrence, and life is merely an accidental arrangement of inert atoms.2. The Global Story
What kind of world do we live in? Is it generally peaceful and safe, or is it harsh and dangerous? Are the people loving and honest or hateful and untrustworthy? Are all living organisms completely separate and distinct, or is everything somehow interconnected? Should we all work together for our common good, or should we each just look out for our own wellbeing? Are there certain universal truths that apply to our interaction with one another or should everyone merely develop their own value system? Should humans be concerned about preserving the resources of the planet for future generations, or is the planet and everything on it merely resources to be enjoyed and consumed for our own pleasure and entertainment?
3. The personal story
Who am I? Am I loveable, or does everyone hate me and treat me wrong? Am I intelligent, attractive, and talented, or am I a complete loser? Am I in control of my life, or am I always the victim of other people and circumstances? Do I enjoy relationships with others, or is human interaction always uncomfortable and frequently painful? Do I get a great satisfaction out of helping others, or should people take care of themselves and just leave me alone? Do I enjoy being alive, or is it just one endless drudgery?
Too frequently the evening news reports accounts of religious terrorists who have committed horrible acts of violence. However, using the model presented here, it is actually possible to understand what could motivate an individual to strap on an explosive device, walk into a crowded market place and detonate it with the full knowledge that they and all those around them will be killed or injured? Clearly the suicide bomber has embraced cosmic and global stories that have created a harsh perception of reality. Undoubtedly spiritual leaders and fellow believers have helped to cultivate their personal story that extols the virtues of martyrdom. In the light of these perceptions, the actions of these “martyrs” are completely logical.
For this individual, God is very demanding and must be obeyed. Because unbelievers are violating His authority, it becomes the responsibility of each true believer to do whatever they need to in order to bring about changes in the world that will enhance God’s influence. What we are observing are individuals who are so committed to this view of reality that their own lives are insignificant when compared to the ultimate goal of achieving complete worldwide theocracy.
Though we may never share a particular perspective, taking time to consider the foundations of and individual’s reality can frequently bring perplexing behaviors into focus. Understanding another’s point of reference can be informative. Understanding our own can be transformative.
Thankfully, none of our core stories are etched in stone. In fact, they are extremely dynamic and subject to change. Exposure to a new experience or new information can produce subtle or even profound alterations in the tales we tell ourselves. Some changes occur because people are easily persuaded. Other changes are the result of an individual’s willingness to examine the validity of their current stories and modify them based on new understandings.
Socrates is credited with having said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” What stories are we telling ourselves? What is their source? Are they true, or merely familiar and comfortable? What changes could we bring about in our lives if we updated our internal dialogue?
In a world that frequently seems to be out of control, Einstein’s observation is quite pertinent: “No problem can be fixed from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Clearly, humanity needs to awaken to a common concept of reality that will nurture a global culture of mutuality. Although science is continually expanding our understanding of our common origin, no new story has been articulated yet that can inspire this level of unity.
Laying the groundwork for a shared foundational sense of reality is our challenge. Building upon it will be the task of future generations.