Are we animals that believe the stories we tell about ourselves?

Kind of a quote from Mark Rowlands, The Philosopher and the Wolf. It’s paraphrasing a little in what he feels is the meaning to be human. It really got me thinking, is this really what defines who we are and how we live our lives? Over the odd beer I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to have thrown around random thoughts with and confused some great (albeit tolerant) friends who I dedicate this to.

The Santa paradox

Recently in particular, I had a debate about why we should or shouldn’t be telling kids that Santa exists. Personally I don’t have a problem with kids believing in Santa but a particular friend does. In short, telling them it’s OK to have a stranger sneak into your house at night is not OK, and they should be thrown into understanding the potentially dangerous and miserable reality of such consequences. But on the other hand, they miss out on the magic and wonder of such festive beliefs. Although if we for the current moment ignore the fact that yes, it is a little freaky to have a stranger sneak into your house I also felt this kind of thinking could potentially sow some seeds of mistrust in people you don’t know and mistrust can lead to a reluctance for understanding, potentially breeding fear and conflict.

People = Shit

You could argue that when we are small, the boundaries on the security of our world is very small too. As we grow older and more independent, this circle gets wider and we learn to trust some people and keep others away. But isn’t there something sad about mistrusting or even judging everyone you meet before understanding who they are? I like to believe that there’s good in all people although it’s also true sometimes circumstances buries or stripes this away. Occasionally people do bad things that they may not think is bad. Although it’s sometimes a matter of perception, occasionally ignorance. If this happens it’s hard to see past and it becomes easy for us to tell ourselves that someone is a bad person.

So if people can be shit then it’s no surprise that we are conditioned by stories to develop a defensive attitude with others. I’ve mixed feelings on this matter as I also see it can potentially manifest itself in our interactions with new people where we are suspicious and standoffish. It may be that we fear this interaction is self serving and that ‘they’ are after something for some form of self gain? How would you react if someone took this stance with you? I’d guess you’d likely react defensively too and thus we tend to spend most of our lives ignoring the world of ‘weirdos’ that are happy enough to try strike up casual conversation with you on the commute into work tomorrow morning. Why does this even matter? Maybe it doesn’t, but just maybe this seed is what really makes us reluctant to help strangers in need. We forget their humanity maybe and unconsciously refuse to make further efforts to understand.

The importance of stories

I think it’s very hard for us to understand things when we are young. So we are susceptible to stories to help us make sense and understanding of our world. Whilst the story of a commercialised Saint may not necessarily be teaching children the right or wrong things, the role in general for religion and superstition has shown us that through human history we’ve always relied on stories to understand our world until the truth is discovered and there’s an ‘awakening’ as such. Of course the majority of the world hold some religious belief and we’ve all a little superstition in us whether we like to believe it or not. As long as stories are not twisted and used as a weapon to cause harm to people then I’ve really no problem whether these are to a scale of a worldwide religion or if it’s simply a Peppa Pig story teaching a child the ways of the world. In fact I think that they are useful tools for us to initially understand the concepts and fundamentals of ethics and how we can live peacefully with one another.

A brief (possibly made up) history of storytelling

The use of story telling is perhaps the big leap forward for humans really to start to interpret and make sense of the world we live in, first to ourselves, then to others. The ability to pass on volumes of information to one another and the development of language to do this effectively, sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. The ability for mankind to be able to communicate and work together has cemented us into the dominant and advanced species we are today. Yes there are other highly intelligent animals that can communicate with one another and work together for survival, but not nearly as efficient and complex in the ways humans do.

I’m simplifying evolution of language and storytelling here but in a nutshell I feel that our abilities to tell and understand stories underpin our innate desire for survival. From our cavemen ancestors who strung together a bunch of expressions and grunts into working effectively together the next logical step to improve survival rates would be by improving numbers within tribes and making sure that the tribe is all fighting for the same cause. Of course this isn’t always as smooth as one would hope and even in times of peace, internal conflict is never far away. In time we start communicating rules to each other so we can at least survive without killing each other. Call it ethics or the basis for religion if you will, but when you’re a member of the most dangerous species on this planet, having any reason and the ability to live in peace alongside your neighbour and not piss them off is evolutionarily, pretty important for survival.

Six billion worlds from six billion different views of it

So how do we live in peace with one another? To keep ourselves in check it’s not only useful for us to keep our emotions in check but also understand others emotions. Empathy is another tool that makes us human but our emotions are very personal to us. No one truly knows how another person feels, it’s impossible unless you can somehow transplant yourselves into the consciousness of another person and back again successfully. Instead we tell each other stories of our experiences and in return listen to them and try to relate and understand. It’s not necessarily a perfect way by any means but it does an good job with it being our only way.

If it’s impossible for us to truly know how another person feels then it’s also fair to say we won’t ever totally understand the worlds of 6 billion other people either. What motivates and angers them, what they love and fear. We can’t measure happiness or sadness, good or evil, successes or failures and because of this it’s really not our place to judge other people because we won’t understand their individual story and experiences. It’s after all a relative and very personal thing to each individual. All we can do is experience our own world in which we then share our differences and draw similarities to reach in some way a connection and a little understanding. That’s easier said than done as it requires us to interpret someone else’s story.

Lost in translation

Throughout your life how many times have you said something or heard something and then go on to realise that the interpretation did not pan out in the way you thought it had? Even speaking the same language it’s not difficult to mishear or come to the wrong conclusion. The problem is then easily scaled up when we communicate with different languages and we have to go through an additional level of interpretation. We also have a problem in that some things exude different meanings from language to language and culture to culture. I recently attended a talk that touched upon briefly the differences in German and Spanish languages. Two groups German and Spanish were asked to describe a bridge, the German word for bridge is ‘Brücke’ and is feminine, the Spanish word is ‘Puente’ and is masculine. The German group described bridges as beautiful, elegant, pretty, and slender, while the Spanish group said they were big, strong, sturdy, and towering. This task was repeated with other words in which similar differences appeared. Language of course plays a key role in the stories we can tell and perhaps this example might indicate how meanings can sometimes be interpreted differently even cross culture.

Conflict and reaction

If it’s that easy to be misunderstood, what is the likelihood that it’s easy to misunderstand how others feel and for others to not understand how you feel? There’s likely to have been times someone has done something or made decisions that you just didn’t understand. If we don’t meet this with surprise, then generally we meet this with frustration or anger. And this escalates in particular when we feel that our personal needs are being threatened or not being met. This creates a vicious circle where our emotions get the better of us. Before we know it we potentially have two parties both pissed off with each other without really understanding why. Of course I’m generalising here, but a lot of conflict is to do with misunderstanding. An angry reaction to that is exactly that, just a reaction caused by not understanding the facts and circumstances of the situation. So we might start telling ourselves some negative stories about the person that triggered the reaction to justify our own reaction more instead of identifying and making sense of the facts.

Now you’ve two things you can do, ignore it or do something about it. I’m not a big fan of ignorance, I think it keeps the truth of the issue at bay. If you’re lucky it’ll resolve itself somehow, if not then it may go away for a bit but will always come back to haunt you. If you’re mindful of this, you can take a step back to view the destructive nature of anger then that’s a good place to be to get to the real problem and what the real story might be.

We are the stories we tell about ourselves

So if only we can truly understand the stories we tell ourselves, then we’re also the only ones to truly believe our own stories. In which case surely we can tell ourselves anything? In which I think we unconsciously do and being conscious of this gives you control to choose the stories you want to believe in.

We tell ourselves stories to make sense of our world, we judge and believe in stories others tell us as long as they help shape or reaffirm our own stories and values. The stories of others we don’t choose to understand we dismiss and we can then choose who we surround ourselves with which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it helps your story and helps you and the people around you live a better life. We do sometimes tell ourselves any old story to justify why someone else’s behaviour or decisions are disappointing or bad. That’s not to justify the terrible acts of some individuals but at least it helps us find a small measure of peace to move on if we at least try to understand. If little else, telling ourselves everything will work out ok is just enough to get you through some real tough days.

Realising that we can choose like this, we can not only choose better stories for ourselves but also our own meanings for life and the reactions to help us get through whatever it throws at us next.

What’s left now is choosing how to spend your time living your better life. In which case I’m planning on living life as Batman.


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