Stories that make the world

Photo by Manel, 2011, CC BY-ND 2.0

Photo by Manel, 2011, CC BY-ND 2.0

 On saturday, an acquaintance and I met at a local park to discuss some things of mutual interest.  It was a stunning fall day, with temperature in the low 80’s, so we sat for several hours at a picnic bench surrounded by tall oaks.

I met this man just a few months ago, and during the conversation, it became clear that his political views and mine are polar opposites.  We mentioned them but didn’t argue, for we had other things to discuss.  Besides, by then some people nearby had a birthday barbecue going, and we were both distracted from politics by the smells.  When someone said, “Anyone else want a burger?” I was sorely tempted to raise my hand.

Later though, I reflected on how the two of us could hold such different narratives of the same recent events.  The poet, Muriel Rukeyser’s phrase, “The universe is made of stories” came to mind, as it often does, for it summarizes a key observation of two disciplines that have deeply shaped my world view, eastern philosophy and depth psychology:

  • “The Buddhist does not inquire into the essence of matter, but only into the essence of the sense perceptions and experiences which create in us the idea of matter.” – Lama Angarika Govinda, 1969.
  • “Every notion in our minds, each perception of the world and sensation in ourselves must go through a psychic organization in order to “happen” at all.” – James Hillman, 1975. 

Such statements may seem too lofty for a number of common experiences, especially things like physical pain, even the sliver I have in a finger from hauling firewood onto the back porch.  Not long ago, however, I came upon a concrete example of how the mind creates reality.

A contemporary Tibetan lama spoke of an experience we all went through in learning to read.  One day when we were young, a teacher drew three marks on the board (or our parents did, or we saw it on Sesame Street).  That teacher then said something that changed our world forever:  “This is the letter A.”

a-elmo-alphabet 200

From that moment on, the letter “A” existed for us, and it always appears to exist “out there,” in the world, when in fact, all that’s “out there” are three lines in a specific pattern.  “A” exists only in the minds of those who have learned certain alphabets – a person who doesn’t read or only reads Chinese would not be able to find it.

This small story about the letter “A” parallels the complex stories we create, borrow, and use to make the sense of the world.  Sometimes, like this past saturday, when it seems like the person you’re talking to comes from an alternate universe, it’s because they do – not a universe we could travel to with  warp drive, but one that is simply constructed of very different stories.

6 thoughts on “Stories that make the world

  1. You touch on one of the great mysteries of life: how people we are close to can have such radically different understanding of politics and religion. For me, the schism is with my parents and I have spent a lot of time trying to fathom the deeper reason for why we interpret the world so differently. I don’t have the answer, only a few clues.

    I do have a book on my shelf that I’ve been meaning to read for over a year, which supposedly will explain it all to me: THE RIGHTEOUS MIND: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. I ought to open it sometime.


    • There is so much to say on this subject, it’s hard to even know how to begin.

      I remember someone writing a book with a title like, “I’ll see it when I believe it.” I remember hearing that when Magellan, on his round-the-world voyage stopped at Tierra del Fuego, there was an isolated band of natives who asked how he got there. The Spaniards at first didn’t understand the question, for their ship was sitting in the bay. The thing was, all the native people knew was canoes, so they literally did not perceive this European vessel since it lay outside their conceptual framework.

      Finally the shaman, who was accustomed to non-ordinary realities, helped them to see the “big canoe” the Spaniards sailed in.

      I’ve read recently that something similar happens in political discourse. It’s a reason views are so seldom changed by “reason” – we tend to absorb only facts that fit with existing views.

      That book on your shelf sounds good.


  2. There is so much that feeds into our individual experiences, I am more surprised there seem to be so few divergent views. It sounds like you had a lovely day even if you didn’t get the hamburger.


  3. Literature, poetry, drama, religion, philosophy and even science are all stories which we tell about ourselves to try to bring order and meaning to our lives. The tragedy is that most people mistake these stories for reality.


    • All his life, James Hillman railed against literalism as the enemy of soul. I found some comments he made shortly before his death about our climate of political polarization and I plan to discuss those soon.


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