The Universe Is Made of Stories
The universe is made of stories, not atoms. -- Muriel Ruykeyser
This lovely quote reminds me that it is not matter but meaning that holds the world together. Whatever objectively exists around us inevitably fits into a narrative each of us concocts to help make sense of it all. I wrote the following thoughts while reflecting on this quote, and the result is a post that is more philosophical than a concrete set of suggestions. So for those of you who may share my interest in the philosophy of ideas, the followig may hold some interest.
It would be silly to use this quote about the value of stories to argue that objective reality is somehow unimportant or even meaningless. Far from it. A bird is never going to be a fish no matter what sort of story I spin about it. (Those of a certain age and temperment may remember an old Monty Python skit where a pet store owner offers to glue some wings and a beak on a fish in order to sell it to a man who wanted to buy a parrot. It didn't work).
At the same time we have a lot of leeway in the stories that make sense of our lives. And these narratives usually serve an important reflective function. As Anais Nin famously said, "we don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." Somewhat similarly, Chekhov wrote, "Man is what he believes." Our ideas and values don't exist in the material plane, yet they influence everything that does. Not everything that counts can be counted, right?
Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh and Cezanne all painted flowers, each unique to that artist's style. There is no way to say only one artist captured the "true" nature of a flower. Each perspective shone truth on a particular aspect of what a flower means. It's the same with the perspectives we hold about whatever is in front of us. Our determination of what is the essence of the situation influences how we approach the moment at hand, and the next one......and the next one.........
The distinction that is important here is between what something is and what something means. This is the balance of the objective and subjective. We can't always do much about the former (that fish will always be a fish) but we can do lots of things about it based on our relationship to it (watch it in a bowl, in a river, on a wall or on a plate). Each choice affects not only that animal but ultimately also ourselves.
Here is a story about the value of stories: 3 bricklayers are all engaging in the same labor all day long. When asked what they were doing the first merely grunted that he was laying bricks. The second replied "I'm building a wall". But the third stood tall, smiled broadly and exclaimed with obvious pride "I'm building a cathedral." All of them were right. They were each doing the same and yet profoundly different things. Since I have a love of quotes, I'll add this one from "The Little Prince" since it seems appropriate to the moment: “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral."
Victor Frankl meditated deeply about why some people wither in the face of hardship while others survive or even thrive, and he concluded that the ability to hold onto an abiding sense of meaning was often the deciding factor. To Frankl, a person with a strong enough "why" can put up with some pretty horrible "whats". To the issue of a story's value, Frankl concluded:
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
What does all this have to do with psychotherapy? Everything. In my Atlanta counseling practice I've come to appreciate that the heart of a great deal of effective psychotherapy is providing people with the opportunity to retell their stories in a way that brings new meaning and purpose to whatever situation is keeping them down. Whether it is the transition from victim to champion, from loser to hero, from "shame to grace" (an old 12-step term) or from humiliated to humble, our histories always remain the same while our stories about them will lead us to ever-greater levels of health, happiness and meaning.
In closing, is this entire post also merely a story? Asking "is this really true" may not be a useful as "is there something here that is helpful". As a student of historical humor I remember a famous cartoon from World War One that showed a soldier cowering in a shallow pit as bombs rained down. He has obviously just complained to a fellow soldier about how shallow and exposed they are. His comrade's plucky reply was "if you know of a better 'ole, go to it!"
If you know of a better story, go to it!
Bill Herring occupies a story in which he is an Atlanta psychotherapist, life coach and author.