On Spiritual Story-telling: Our Stories Matter

As languaging self-reflexive primates, we like to explain things. More to the point, we like stories that explain things – why the sun appears in the east and disappears in the west, why the North Star appears so consistently still in the sky, how people came to exist, why they have to die, what happens after they die, what’s beneath or behind the various surfaces we encounter, et cetera.

A good story satisfies us. It explains how the world works, what the proper order of life is, and how we fit into it. Good stories solve mysteries and bring clarity to complicated issues.

The thing is, these explanatory narratives are often wrong. The Romans butchered white castrated oxen on the day new consuls swore their oaths in order to appease Jupiter – that was wrong. Jonathan Edwards believed that if a person’s behavior deviated from very narrow tenets, then God would drop them into a fiery pit for all eternity – that was wrong. Lord Kelvin argued that élan vital infused matter, bringing it to life – that was wrong. Charmaine Yoest, Trump’s assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, believes that abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer – that’s wrong.

The point is not to gloat, to point out all the poor saps who have fallen prey over the years to illusion, misinformation, junk science and so forth. They’re just human observers being human observers. Human psychology is human psychology. Thinking that we’re unique exceptions, that we would never make those kinds of errors, well, that’s an error. There are no high horses, no royal roads. The fool and the king both put their pants on one leg at a time. Us too.

The point is to become aware of the ways in which our own thinking, our own explanatory stories, deviate from coherence. If we can’t do that – or think that we don’t need to do it – then that’s our first example of incoherence. We are human observers having a human experience and that includes a) having nontrivial perceptual and cognitive blind spots and b) being sometimes blind to our own blindness. Pretending otherwise is silly.

One way to check our blindness is to notice words and phrases that “seem” explanatory but in fact just provide a hit of feel-good emotion. “Nothing real can be threatened.” “Jesus saves.” “If you take one step towards Allah, Allah will take ten steps towards you.” “Consciousness is all.” And so forth.

Those phrases are not helpful in terms of figuring out how to act in the world. If your child had a bad fall, saying “consciousness is all” won’t help you calm your child, get a medical kit, and decide whether to call for help. If you forget to mail a critical package for work, saying “Jesus saves” won’t magically retroactively mail it.

No, what those phrases do is make us feel better. Bad shit happens, call Jesus. Scary events happen but really it’s all neutral because there’s only consciousness. This divorce really hurts but don’t sweat it because neither the world nor the bodies in it are real. How many times have we said “God has a plan” and felt better about whatever adverse circumstances were then enveloping us?

It makes sense we want to feel better. It is healthy to develop strategies that will help us feel better. But if we are indulging fantasies, specious logic, and other forms of incoherence as the means of feeling better, then we are setting ourselves up to feel bad again. And maybe bring others along with us.

There is a better way.

If you tell me that calling on Jesus calms you so you can better attend your injured child or deal with some other crisis, ask why that is what calms you. If you didn’t believe Jesus was real and involved – was really there in some tangible way – then calling on him wouldn’t work.

And if you really do believe that God and his son Jesus are present and attentive to you in a personal way, then why do bad things happen at all? Why doesn’t God nudge the branch aside over which your child is about to trip? Why does Jesus wait on your call, rather than just showing up when needed?

If you say, “well, it’s just one person telling themselves God loves them or Jesus saves so what’s the harm” then you are missing the key point that nothing we do is without effect in a broader way. Everything we do affects those around us. It was just one Mayan who thought cutting the heart out of living prisoners was a good idea, but he managed to convince a lot of other Mayans it was a good idea, and so a lot of people died very painful deaths. Don’t sell yourself short!

Our fictions reverberate and those reverberations have a direct impact on other lives. If you are indulging a God who can actively affect your life, then you are simultaneously providing cover for folks who think God is active in their lives – and their God may want women to hide their bodies and submit to men, or blow up abortion clinics, or keep gay folks from marrying or adopting children or even just holding hands in public.

If you say, well, your God is different than the God of those crazy people, or that those crazy people are worshiping the wrong God, or the right God the wrong way, well, congratulations. Your argument means that everyone is entitled to their God, which means that some of those Gods are going to be very Jonathan Edwards-like. Some may even lean in directions that Mayans would find familiar. It is a slippery slope and our feet are bathed in grease.

I am saying that if you are turning in the direction of God – however you frame that turn and that-to-which-you-turn – then you are turning in the direction of incoherence. You are turning in the direction of pain – for you and for others, some of whom you love and care for, and wouldn’t hurt in a million years.

Feeling crappy is okay. Bad luck is okay. Rough patches are normal. They are all part of the human experience. Wanting to avoid what hurts – and minimize the hurt when it does happen – is also okay. That, too, is part of the human experience. A nifty thing about human observers is that we can reflect on our experience, dialogue with others, learn new practices, make predictions, adapt our behavior and so forth. It is possible to be happy – deepy happy – and in our happiness to be kind and helpful to others in tangible sustainable ways. It doesn’t take a deity.

When we feel better because we believe God or Jesus or the Buddha or the Beloved or the All is there for us, intervening for us, guiding us, then we are reenacting the same story our ancestors enacted. We probably aren’t cheering for the ritual sacrifice of virgins we kidnapped from neighboring towns, but we shouldn’t get too smug. Incoherence is still incoherent, even if its affects are not as dramatic as they once were.

Give attention to your stories. Notice how some of them purport to explain life and death and love and loss. Notice how these stories sustain you in the face of both internal and external adversity. Then notice how these stories are not actually explanatory at all. They’re more like code words to set off a temporary boost in our dopamine levels. They provide a temporary – a transitory – respite from what ails us.

If we can notice our incoherent stories, then we can ask what an actual coherent story would look like. How can we actually explain what scares us – death, loss, uncertainty, et cetera? If we don’t presently have helpful explanatory stories, is that okay? How should we go about getting one? What can we do in the interim? Who should we turn to for help?

Check your stories. Make a practice of telling more effective ones. Don’t be embarrassed to discard what no longer works – it happens to all of us. Don’t go with the first idea. Ask what this would look like to someone who doesn’t care what you do with your life. Look for questions you don’t want to ask, and answers you shy away from.

It is counter-intuitive to do this! It’s hard. We are not wired to doubt our intuitions and instincts. But it is helpful to persist. Not because we are going to become perfect or Godlike, but because we are going to become happier, and in our happiness be more helpful to those around us, which will increase their happiness in turn. That is a reasonable goal. That is meaningful living.

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