[This is the continuation of pt. 1: Ruminating on the Power of Storytelling]
Life is fuckin’ nasty, brutish, and short.
Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century political philosopher argued that the natural state of man, human nature that is, was chaotic and anarchic.
Man–according to Hobbes–if left to his own devices, without the guiding hand of government—centralized, absolute, monarchical government—would destroy himself in petty feuds with his neighbors.
Basically, mankind would be anything but kind. Humans are self-serving, greedy, vicious animals who cannot be trusted to govern themselves. In short, evil reigns, and goodness disappears.
A good portion of my adult life, I was Hobbesian. I agreed with him wholeheartedly. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago. But there have been times in my life that I aspired to a more positive judgement of mankind’s natural state, and I’ve found myself, lately, coming back around to that way of thinking.
I don’t agree with Hobbes anymore. I think he’s dead wrong, mostly.
The problem with his theory is that the ‘natural state’ that he attempts to describe hasn’t actually been tried during the historical period, i.e., from about 5000 BC to now. In all areas with historical records, there have been governmental control of one form or another. There has been no anarchical experiment of any size to give us a real test of his theory.
Would society devolve into complete chaos and violence? Or is human nature more social, more interdependent, more cooperative?
I think it is the latter.
It’s All About the Storytelling
But basically it comes down to the story we all want to believe, or tell, about the human race, about ourselves, about our friends, family, neighbors.
Is it a positive story? Does it at least aspire to be positive? Or is it, in the balance, mostly negative?
What I’ve discovered, for myself, in my own experience, is that the story of the world closely resembles the story of my life.
Because I write the story of the world.
Yeah, I know that’s pretty fuckin’ arrogant, but it’s true, nonetheless. I do. But so do you. Every day, we all write the story of the world, the history of the world, in our own minds. We construct the world with our own thoughts. We are creators of our own reality.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a ‘reality’ that exists outside of our own creation, but only just barely.
Old Pianos & the Stories They Tell
For instance, I have my grandparents’ old piano in my garage. No, it’s not a good place for a piano, especially since I live in freezing cold Yankeeland Minnsnowta, but the piano has long been ruined by moving five hundred times, being beatin’ to death by three boys, and crawled on by cats.
It’s seen steamy hot Southern summers, brittle cold Yankee winters, and long ago it lost its ability to be tuned. If you saw it in my garage, you’d probably ask me, “Steve, why don’t you just get rid of that thing?”
My mom has asked that question many times: every time we moved, and quite a few times in between.
The piano exists, external to our own thought processes. We do not create it with our thought, though someone did: the piano maker.
While it does exist physically, it’s just an object. Most of us, those of us who know what a piano is, agree that it’s a piano, or at least it used to function as one. It still looks like one, and you can bang on it and it makes piano-like sounds, though it’s massively out of tune and would hurt your ears to hear it. To you, or to someone that isn’t me, it’s just a piece of junk. It holds no special meaning.
But to me, it is a book. It tells stories, it sings songs.
When I look at it, I hear my mother playing ‘Here comes Santa Claus’ every Christmas morning for 18 years, as my brothers and I filed down stairwells and hallways, to march into the living room where the Christmas tree stood, surrounded by mounds of presents, and glittery wrappings.
I see myself sitting at the piano trying to learn to play it—I never did—or banging on the E trying to tune my guitar to it, and mostly failing.
I see my dad’s crappy, ship-clock sitting on it. I loved that clock. I hear endless songs coming from that piano. It was the sentinel of the living room, the guardian of tradition. It was somewhere to put books, but never to throw your crap. Mom didn’t allow crap to be tossed around and left, oh hell no. You had to put that stuff up!
I remember moving that piano, every time we moved, countless times, including the last few times that I’ve moved since my parents bequeathed it to me.
The front roller casters have always been loose, so whenever you pick it up, they fall out and someone has to pick them up and be ready to slip them back in when you get the monstrosity to its new destination.
In other words, the piano MEANS SOMETHING. To me, anyway.
The physical piano exists, outside of those memories, but the piano that I know, is created by me. I project meaning onto it. Other people in my family project meaning onto it, too. But their stories and mine aren’t the same.
They have similarities, for sure, especially the stories told by my brothers, and to a certain extent, by my parents. But to everyone else, it’s just a bunch of wood and steel, and cast iron. It’s just a piano. You, and everyone else in the world are ignorant to its significance. You don’t know its story. I created the story; I wrote it. I write it every time I look at it. The same goes for the world.
The stories of the world are just as varied.
Everyone has a story about the world: “the world according to ME” let’s call it. And because of that, the world has seven billion stories about its own existence.
The question is whether those stories are mostly positive, or negative.
An argument can be made that they are mostly negative, and I’m not sure I’d disagree with that, though I suppose I’m going to try. The reason I’m going to argue the opposite position is that I know that people can rewrite their stories, but that rewrite has to start within themselves. The reason most ‘world stories’ are negative, is because most people tell a negative story about themselves and their part in the world story. We beat ourselves up, every day, and only rarely do we realize we’re doing it.
How many times have you said to yourself as you bump into something in your house, or drop your keys as you’re trying to head out the door in a five ton coat, wearing gloves so you can go out into sub-zero temperatures, “Damn it, you dumbass! You’re so stupid, clumbsy, uncoordinated!” or something to that nature?
I catch myself doing it all the time. This negative dialogue that runs in our head all the time is our story. It’s a part of our personal story about our place in the larger ‘world’ story. And most of the time, the story we tell ourselves is overly negative, sometimes it’s so negative that it becomes self destructive and leads to depression.
All of it is damaging, however.
We need to stop it because it affects, directly, the way we write the world story that is also running in our head, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, but always running.
How can we tell a positive story about the world, if we tell negative stories about ourselves, and about those around us?
The funny thing is, that most of the people around us—and I’m giving you credit here—think that we are amazing people!
They think we’re intelligent, funny, witty, dependable, kind, caring, and many other positive things. And we think the same thing about them!
Why? Because we ARE those things, and so are they! But internally, that negative story grinds on, and grinds us down, while coloring our view of the world.
What’s also funny, is that most of us WANT to be good, to be a positive contribution to those around us, to our neighbors, friends, community. And that is the key, and why I think Hobbes got it all wrong.
I don’t think Hobbes was a bad guy—of course, I don’t really know since he died almost 400 years ago—but I think his heart was in the right place. Hobbes had lived through the English Civil War, which was particularly bloody, as all civil wars are. So it colored his viewpoint on human nature, in a very negative way. It stands to reason that it would. It would be an heroic feat to come out of such an experience with a positive story to tell: heroic, but not impossible.
It is very difficult, but we’re going to dive deep into this topic, I think, because I believe it’s one of the most important ways to change the world, if not the MOST important way. It might just be. For the English Civil War, much as the American Civil War, and every other war, were really just extensions of negative storytelling, which all began in the minds of millions of individuals.
We’ll continue the thread, next time, with a look at war, and just how nasty, and nice, it can be, if you tell the story the right way.
See y’all next time.