Narrative and Reality

I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic. When I was a little kid in Sunday School class, I was the one the teachers hated, because when we read stories of creation, I was the one who asked why the Bible didn’t mention dinosaurs. When I got older, I asked why some of the rules people thought so important weren’t actually in the Bible at all. Then, if we were truly following the example of a benevolent savior who asked us quite specifically to give up all we had, why did churches fight so much about money? And ultimately, if God is such a nice guy, then why do the most innocent among his creations suffer so much?

Bit by bit, I like to peel back layers, and ask more questions, until sometimes what I’m left with is this stark, cold, core of reality. I find that destination beautiful in its own way, but I’ll be honest, the journey can feel a little bleak at times. But I’ve always hungered to know, to see what lies beneath the surface of things, to know how everything works, and so I pick and pull until I’ve found something that at least looks like the underlying structure.

You might think this means that my view of the world leans cold and logical, and perhaps in some ways it is, but I have found that the ultimate result of every investigation I’ve undertaken is the same conclusion: that the fabric of the universe we live in is stranger and more wonderful than we can know. Even if I don’t believe in a benevolent God, or in forces controlling my destiny, I certainly acknowledge, over and over again, that there are things beneath and above and around what we see that are a complete mystery to us. That quite probably always will be. Even if those hidden things are only the things inside the corners of our own minds.

I have a friend who claims an unusual ability. This friend (let’s call him Ron) says, with great sincerity, that he knows the instant he meets someone that he’s going to have a future romantic relationship with them. An alarm goes off, and he has no doubt that there will be dating, or unrequited love, or heartbreak, or marriage. And this alarm has never failed. Ron has never had a romantic entanglement without the warning, and he’s never had the warning without the ensuing romantic entanglement.

Now, as someone who is inclined to peel back and investigate why things work the way they do, I have a lot of questions about this warning system.

“Couldn’t it just be some chemistry thing?”

Ah, but there are people with whom I’ve had great chemistry, but no alarm, and no romance.

“Well, what if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy?”

Ron shrugs. Maybe. But then you’d think there would be some relationships without the alarm.

Ron believes. And to watch strange circumstances and chance fall into place around him, it’s not hard to see why. Even before I’d heard Ron’s description of this alarm system, I’d noticed that he seemed buffeted by an odd number of coincidences, that he seemed, in spite of his best efforts, unable to escape the consequences of not only this alarm system, but all sorts of other nudges that might, to the eyes of someone inclined to believe in such things, look like the pull of destiny. That even had a skeptic asking questions.

The human mind is a strange and tricksy place. As many wonderful things as it can do, as powerful as it is, it can also obscure and change reality.

Even the most level-headed scientist is susceptible to confirmation bias. We’re all programmed to reach a conclusion, and then bend our perception of reality around that belief.

A liberal decides that conservatives are the worst, and here are the hundred reasons why, and all those reasons over there why maybe they aren’t? Nah, they aren’t nearly as important as the proof.

The faithful decide that miracles are real, and of course they are, because here’s the exhaustive list of miracles witnessed either personally or by a friend of a friend, or printed on the internet. All those times people suffered the worst possible outcome, they just weren’t faithful enough, or there was some lesson to be extracted that will have meaning later.

A logical thinker decides that there is nothing in this world beyond what fact can prove, and all else isn’t worth attending to, and life is what he makes of it and nothing more. All those things that can’t be quantified, like love and touch and mysterious forces, have no meaning.

We all do it. None of us can entirely control it, even when we know it happens. The trick is to keep asking questions, keep changing perspectives, keep staring at what we think we know and flipping it upside-down.

So what does this mean about Ron’s romance alarm system?

It means that I don’t know. I’m of two minds, in the gray zone in between cold logic and fervent belief. To entirely reject it would mean embracing the idea that there are no mysteries, no chances, no unexplained phenomena in the universe. To entirely accept it feels like an act of blind faith, a thing I turned away from long ago. So I turn it upside-down, and inside-out, and ask questions that come at it from both sides.

Ron believes, though. And that’s a far more powerful force than all my questions.

I think that a lot of the time we view books, movies, comics, poetry, art in general, as frivolous things. Entertainment. This is what we do when we have downtime, to reduce stress, because we’re bored.

This idea couldn’t be more wrong.

Stories are everything.

We tell ourselves stories all the time, even those of us who don’t think we’re creative. We have the tales about how we fit into the world, narratives from our past that tell people we meet in the present who we are. We lay them out one by one, until someone unfamiliar becomes an acquaintance, a friend, a best friend, a partner. We create our identity with stories.

This one time, I abandoned a friend’s birthday party for no explicable reason, and drove lonely back roads for hours.

I’ve been coming to this restaurant since it opened.

I got my English degree to go to seminary, but now I’m an atheist.

When my kid was diagnosed, it changed my life.

This ring was my grandmother’s, and I wear it as a talisman.

And this doesn’t only happen when we’re talking to other people. We tell stories about ourselves to ourselves as well. We go through our daily lives, choosing who will be our friends because of this narrative, who will be our enemies because of that narrative. What we tell ourselves determines whether or not we have value.

I failed to get my book published, so my life is a waste.

Today my kid didn’t cry once, I was a great parent.

This meal is delicious, I’m an excellent cook.

Everyone I love is suffering and it’s all my fault.

The right narrative can drive someone to seek a life-saving medicine, even if it means sacrificing everything else in the pursuit. The wrong narrative can overwhelm someone with despair and leave them helpless. Stories change the world, all the time. Who we are as human beings becomes dry and empty without them.

So, when I pull back all the layers of meaning wrapped around the world, this is what I see, at the core. This is the meaning that I extract.

With stories, we make the world.

When we write novels and poems and screenplays, we are creating a narrative that builds into a truth about the world around us. We are taking events, people, places, things, and assigning them meaning through stories. We demonstrate the value of courage and selflessness when we write tales of superheroes. We emphasize the importance of love and binding relationships when we write romance novels. We confront monsters both without and within when we film horror movies. Stories aren’t mere entertainment. Stories are how we build our universe. And how we see the world changes how we interact with it, and that ultimately changes the world itself.

As much as I like to be a skeptic, I’m also a believer, and stories are the reason why. My writing is the reason why. My own internal narrative, and how its constant changings also change how I see the world are why. And this is why I make more stories. Because stories are more than frivolities.

Stories are everything.