Monday, August 12, 2019

That's How Every Story Worth Telling Begins

From historian Yuval Noah Harari's book Sapiens:

The ability to create an imagined reality out of words enabled large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively. But it also did something more. Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths -- by telling different stories. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the myth of the divine right of kings to believing in the myth of the sovereignty of the people. Consequently, ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution. Speeding down this fast lane, Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and animal species in its ability to cooperate.

I recently wrote about the beauty I sometimes see in our ability to cooperate, our great adaptive advantage, one that has allowed us to, in many ways, step outside our genetic coding, and to actually choose our evolutionary path. This capacity for cooperation hasn't always, or even mostly, showed up in what we today consider "beautiful" ways, however. Much of it has come in the form of subjugating the weak for the benefit of the strong, compelled by the myths we've told one another about things like divine right, slavery, gender, and race. But for better or worse, the ability to cooperate in large numbers and in complex ways is what makes us who we are as a species.

I'm currently reading a novel by Salman Rushdie entitled The Enchantress of Florence in which an emperor philosophizes over his use of the royal "we." From his perspective, he is a plurality in the sense that what he does, thinks, and feels, is always on behalf of all the people over which he rules. He experiments with talking about and thinking of himself in terms of "I," but cannot bring himself to see any reality in it. He wonders about his subjects: do they also see themselves as a plurality, through their various roles, for instance, as men and women, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, teachers, and lovers. Are their families, friends, co-workers, spouses, and children included in their conception of themselves as "we?" As I considered along with this fictional emperor I saw his point and wondered if, perhaps, "we" is not the better way to refer to myself. I am, after all, a plurality.

Physicists and philosophers have for some time been telling us that we don't actually exist as individuals at all; that the concept of self is, in fact, a myth we've told based upon our very, very limited ability to perceive the universe as it actually exists. It appears from where we stand, that we are individuals, that "we" are "I," in the same way that clouds appear to be solid objects when we look at them from the perspective of standing on the ground. I wonder if maybe Homo sapiens, in devising this ability to cooperate, to act as "we," haven't in a crude and clumsy way, discovered through our use of language and myth, one of the keys to how the universe truly exists: it is ours to create. We can, overnight, stop living in a world of divine right and choose one of self governance instead. Any story we can collectively tell can become, overnight, reality.

I've been watching children at play for a long time, and while I'm reluctant to romanticize them, it does seem to me that when they are left to their own devices, they demonstrate a wisdom about plurality that we adults are often too dense to comprehend. We become so fixated on the trials and tribulations, the possessions and successes, the anxieties and joys of "I," that we lose touch with the reality of the royal "we" that is the essence of our species. In children's play we daily see them tell and un-tell every myth, making and remaking their world to suit their collective pursuits, joining and un-joining, telling stories that almost always begin with the greatest invitation, "Let's . . ."

Harari suggests that Homo sapiens have stepped outside of Darwinian evolution, to become nearly godlike, so much so that we are on the verge of destroying ourselves (not the earth; the earth will go on). As we race up to the edge of extinction by suicide, I wonder if we have it in us to, overnight, begin telling a new myth about who "we" are. No one knows, of course, the future is an ever emerging unknowable, but I'd like to think so. What I do know is that if we are going to do it, it will start with us turning to one another to begin to tell a new and better fiction about "we," one that begins with "Let's . . ." That's how every story worth telling begins.

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