Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Knowing Only One Story

The Druid way can be followed anywhere, but for me, at least, it's always a bit easier outside among green growing things. That doesn't require wilderness; some of the most transformative experiences of my own Druid path took place in a week of dawn meditations in the gardens in Chalice Well in Glastonbury, which hasn't been wilderness any time in the last five thousand years. Still, there's much to be said for a creekside meadow up in the Oregon Cascades, with the sun just beginning to burn through morning mist and the distant noises of the breakfast crew back at camp drowned out by birdsong and running water. That's where I was, in the middle of my dawn meditation, when three sentences whispered themselves in the silence inside my head.

Knowing many stories is wisdom.
Knowing no stories is ignorance.
Knowing only one story is death.


I've been brooding about those sentences for the year and a half since that morning, and the more I think about them the more they say to me about where we are today and how we got here.

Traditional cultures around the world have a wealth of stories, and a very large part of education in those cultures consists of sharing, learning, and thinking about those stories. They aren't simply entertainment. Stories are probably the oldest and most important of all human tools. We think with stories, by fitting the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of the universe around us into narrative patterns that make the world make sense. Even today, we use stories to tell us who we are, what the world is like, and what we can and can't do with our lives. It's just that nowadays the stories have changed.

One of the most striking things about old stories, the stories of traditional cultures, is that no two of them have the same moral. Think of the fairy tales you grew up with. They put different people in different situations with very different results. Sometimes violating a prohibition brought success ("Jack and the Beanstalk"), sometimes it brought disaster ("Sleeping Beauty"). Sometimes victory went to the humble and patient ("Cinderella"), sometimes it went to the one who was willing to try the impossible ("Puss in Boots"). There are common themes in the old stories, of course, but endless variations on them. Those differences are a source of great power. If you have a wealth of different stories to think with, odds are that whatever the world throws at you, you'll be able to find a narrative pattern that makes sense of it.

Over the last few centuries, though, the multiple-narrative approach of traditional cultures has given way, especially in the industrial West, to a way of thinking that privileges a single story above all others. Think of any currently popular political or religious ideology, and you'll likely find at its center the claim that one and only one story explains everything in the world.

For fundamentalist Christians, it's the story of Fall and Redemption ending with the Second Coming of Christ. For Marxists, it's the very similar story of dialectical materialism ending with the dictatorship of the proletariat. For rationalists, neoconservatives, most scientists, and quite a fair number of ordinary people in the developed world, it's the story of progress. The political left and right each has its own story, and the list goes on.

One symptom of knowing only one story is the certainty that whatever problem comes up, it has the same solution. For fundamentalist Christians, no matter what the problem, the solution is surrendering your will to Jesus -- or, more to the point, to the guy who claims to be able to tell you who Jesus wants you to vote for. For Marxists, the one solution for all problems is proletarian revolution. For neoconservatives, it's the free market. For scientists, it's more scientific research and education. For Democrats, it's electing Democrats; for Republicans, it's electing Republicans.

The problem is that the universe is what ecologists call a complex system. In a complex system, feedback loops and unexpected consequences make a mockery of simplistic attempts to predict effects from causes, and no one solution will effectively respond to more than a small portion of the challenges the system can throw at you. This leads to the second symptom of knowing only one story, which is repeated failure.

Recent economic history offers a good example. For the last two decades, free-market advocates in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been pushing a particular set of reforms on governments and economies around the world, insisting that these reforms are the one and only solution to every economic ill. Everywhere those have been fully implemented, the result has been economic and social disaster -- think East Asia in the late 1980s, or Russia and Latin America in the 1990s -- and the countries devastated by these "reforms" have returned to prosperity only after reversing them. None of this has stopped the free market's true believers from continuing to press forward toward the imaginary Utopia their story promises them.

If you know plenty of stories, and know how to think with them, the complexity of the universe is less of a problem, because you have a much better chance of being able to recognize what story the universe seems to be following, and act accordingly. If you don't know any stories at all, interestingly, you may still get by; even though you don't have the resources of story-wisdom to draw on, you may still be able to judge the situation on its own merits and act accordingly; you have flexibility.

But if you only know one story, and you're committed to the idea that the world makes sense if and only if it's interpreted through the filter of that one story, you're stuck in a rigid stance with no options for change. Much more often than not, you fail, since the complexity of the universe is such that no single story makes a useful tool for understanding more than a very small part of it. If you can recognize this and let go of your story, you can begin to learn. If you've gotten your ego wrapped up in the thought of having the one and only true story, though, and you try to force the world to fit your story rather than allowing your story to change to fit the world, the results will not be good.

This leads to the third symptom of knowing only one story, which is rage. Failure is a gift because it offers the opportunity for learning, but if the gift is too emotionally difficult to accept, the easy way out is to take refuge in rage. When we get angry with people who disagree with us about politics or religion, I'm coming to think, what really angers us is the fact that our one story doesn't fit the universe everywhere and always, and those who disagree with us simply remind us of that uncomfortable fact.

Plenty of pundits, and many ordinary people, as well have commented on the extraordinary level of anger that surges through America these days. From talk radio to political debates to everyday conversations, dialogue has given way to diatribe across the political spectrum. It's unlikely to be a coincidence that this has happened over a quarter century when the grand narratives of both major American political parties failed the test of reality. The 1960s and 1970s saw the Democrats get the chance to enact the reforms they wanted; the 1980s and the first decade of the 21st century saw the Republicans get the same opportunity. Both parties found themselves stymied by a universe that obstinately refused to play along with their stories, and too often, people on both sides turned to anger and scapegoating as a way to avoid having to rethink their ideas.

That habit of rage isn't going to help us, or anyone, as we move toward a future that promises to leave most of our culture's familiar stories in tatters. As we face the unwelcome realities of resource depletion, environmental instability, and the inevitable hangover coming on the heels of our fictive economy's decades-long binge, clinging to whatever single story appeals to us may be emotionally comforting in the short term, but it leads down a dead end familiar to those who study the history of extinct civilizations. Learning other stories, and finding out that it's possible to see the world in more than just one way, is a more viable path.

4 comments:

rg said...

john:

your paper on catabolic collapse and other things you've written are most helpful to those of us who have read them and are trying to figure out how to get ready for what's to come.

the small number of comments here prompts me to say that i hope you will keep blogging. i'm confident that your blog will come to be widely read, and deservedly so.

- rg

John Michael Greer said...

rg,

Many thanks for the encouragement! Most of my projects have taken a while to find an audience; I'm used to that by now, so expect a post here every week for the foreseeable future.

JMG

DougG said...

John:

I can relate to this theme of trying to fit everything into one story. I have been studying and planning for 6 years now to make my Peak Oil preparations. I have been trying to make those preparations in baby steps in order to allow my wife to become acclimated to the life changes that will be necessary as the energy crisis unfolds. (She is generally change-phobic.) However, some steps, by definition, must be pretty big: putting off having kids for a few years so we can buy land for a homestead that is outside of major metropolitan areas; using our savings to make improvements to the land or build outbuildings, and now, selling our suburban house before the housing bubble collapses and renting locally in order to keep and be able to invest the paper gains we have made in the last 6 years. Every major step that I try to make is met with her anger and resentment that her life is not playing out according to her preferred story.
That story is the prototypical "American Dream" that Kunstler has talked about on several occasions: Us and our (future) 2 kids living in a 4000+ sq ft suburban mcmansion house while I make megabucks at the big corporation in the city while she stays home and raises the kids.
Just about every time I start discussing plans for the homestead property with anyone, she gets mad because she is reminded that she's not going to live that "American Dream" storyline.

Leon said...

Sure. Stories = patterns (as they're known in permaculture and some other disciplines)... If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like .. you know :)

Really enjoyed reading this post, thank you!