Monday, November 28, 2011

Stories We Tell Ourselves

One widely known, brief Hasidic tale ends with a catechetical savor as told by Elie Wiesel: "God made man because he loves stories." But who loves stories? Man? If so, why is that a sufficient reason for God to make him? Or is it God who loves stories? If so, did He create man in order to have someone to tell Him stories, or is man himself God's story?
                   ~Theodore M. Hesburg, from the introduction to Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy

The invention of the steam engine produced a revolution, not merely in industrial techniques, but also and much more significantly in philosophy.  Because machines could be made progressively more and more efficient, western man came to believe that men and societies would automatically register a corresponding moral and spiritual improvement.   Attention and allegiance came to be paid, not to Eternity, but to the Utopian future.  External circumstances came to be regarded as more important than states of mind about external circumstances, and the end of human life was held to be action, with contemplation as a means to that end.  These false and, historically, aberrant and heretical doctrines are now systematically taught in our schools and repeated, day in, day out, by those anonymous writers of advertising copy who, more than any other teachers, provide European and American adults with their current philosophy of life.   And so effective has been the propaganda that even professing Christians accept the heresy unquestioningly and are quite unconscious of its complete incompatibility with their own or anybody else's religion.
          ~Aldous Huxley, from the introduction to The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood

Stories are important. Whether we realize it or not, we all tell ourselves stories. We tell ourselves stories about the world and how it works, about our lives and what we are doing with them. We tell ourselves stories in order to explain to ourselves and to make intelligible the seemingly random and chaotic nature of the cosmos in which we exist. We tell ourselves stories to give ourselves the strength to go on when all our strength is gone. Without stories we are lost, adrift.

There was a time in human history when most of us received the stories around which we built our lives from religion. We told ourselves stories of Gods and Goddesses and their relations with humanity. We told ourselves stories of Heaven and Hell, of Karma and Rebirth and of final escape from the wheel of becoming. We told ourselves stories of a benevolent Deity watching over us, noting down our triumphs and our failures of spirit.

But at some point these stories began to lose their power over us. The old stories began to seem irrelevant at best, detrimental at worst. We began to reject the stories of our forebears; but stories are important. We could not live without them and so, without even realizing it, we began to create new stories, though we were unaware that stories were what we were creating.

We gave to these new stories the name of Science. We found that these stories had power, that we could use them to remake our world, to explain it to us in ways that seemed true in a manner that the old stories did not. For a time they existed together, the old stories and the new (as they still do, to some extent), but eventually the new stories of the scientists gained the upper hand, and more and more they came to replace the old stories of the priests and the saints. The intelligent among us, it came to be believed, placed no credence in the old stories and subscribed only to the new, to the scientific story of our world.

This overthrowing of the old stories of religion by the new stories of science created a spiritual crisis in the heart of humanity, a crisis from which we have not yet emerged. What we failed to recognize was that the stories were not describing the same things, that they were descriptions of different territories, of different worlds, and that in rejecting the stories of religion and replacing them with the stories of science we had lost a truth that could find no means of expression in the new narrative. At first, this loss was not apparent. In the beginning the new stories concerned only the operation of the natural world, and while there was a de-sacrelizing of the material universe, "God's Law" being replaced by "Natural Law," the miraculous by the mechanical, it seemed but a small matter and more than compensated for by the new-found control over our existence that resulted from this usurpation. But soon the enthusiasm for new stories sought other environments, other landscapes in which to find expression.

Perhaps the most harmful were the new stories that emerged concerning the organization of human societies and the goal and purpose of individual human lives. The story-tellers who called themselves economists rejected the stories of religion that told us to be charitable and forgiving and replaced them with stories that urged each person to care only for themselves, to think only of their own benefit. The story-tellers who were called advertisers rejected the stories of human fulfillment through self-abnegation and universal good-will and replaced them with stories of fulfillment through the purchase and consumption of many unnecessary products. These stories, we were told, were superior to the old religious ones, in the same way that the scientific stories were superior to the religious in describing the operation of the natural world. Enthralled by the novelty, many of us paid heed.

However, it should be clear to us now that the stories about society and about human life provided us by our new "scientific" story-tellers have not lived up to their promises. We have built our lives and our communities around them, have had them endlessly recited to us, and have recited them to ourselves and to our children. We have given our lives over to them and we have found them wanting. These stories of economics and of consumerism, unlike the old stories of religion which they have replaced, have no end to them; they are stories empty of meaning and import; they have created entire generations of spiritual paupers.

The new story goes like this: try to obtain as much money as you can for as little work as possible; use this money to buy many things for yourself; repeat this process until you die. The story is simply, "he who dies with the most toys wins." But this story does not ennoble us, does not open to us our higher potentialities. This story tells us that we are nothing but empty stomachs, no more than hungry ghosts. But humanity does not live by bread alone and cannot find fulfillment in a new car or television set, or in second house or a dress or a dishwasher. We require more, but the stories we now live by have no more to offer.

The story of religion, that we need desperately to remember, to incorporate into our lives, is this: do whatever work comes to hand, for all work is necessary; use the money you get from this work to care for as many of your fellow creatures as you can, for all are children of one family; do your best to turn yourself into a being of pure Love, for that is the highest that a human being can attain. This is a story with meaning, an ennobling story, and a story that needs to be told over and over again.

Stories are important; we know ourselves and our world only through the stories that we tell. The tales that modern society has provided us have shown themselves empty. Let us remember now the older tales, let us dress them in the garb of modernity, but let us reclaim their truth and once again make it our own; for our sake and for that of the world.  


kesar said...

Great post, really moving and so close mirroring my personal notions.

I hope much more people will start reading your blog. I wish this to you, me and the whole planet. More people will start thinking like you and we'll have much more happy humanity.

Anonymous said...

Some really useful slides here. I've been looking for something like this to help with a research piece I've been working on.
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