Stories are how we bind individual perception and social reality. Consider from a nautical metaphor, where stories are the lines connecting individual boats with the social pier. Sure, the boat exists but until it gets close enough to dock, the details of its make are uncertain and the quality of its captain is unclear. Without stories, nobody would have access to the inner worlds of others. Further, without them, the substance of who we are would be dismally small, cut off from the expanding presence of so many other perspectives. A dock without boats is a sad place.
Now, ‘stories’ are the narrative version of what we perceive with our senses. Think of a rock or tree. When they become ‘the rock struck me’ or ‘the tree fell over,’ we’re giving a structure to experience, providing ourselves an order to what otherwise would be a haphazard array of individual moments. It happens so seamlessly, attempting to think of experience as anything else is almost impossible. To help, consider a cartoon animation. There are many individual poses, incrementally streamed together into what we then see as movement. Much the same occurs in our brains and when we mentalize it through language, we get stories.
Weaving the World Together
This process of binding disparate pieces of reality to build the structure of our experience is why it’s so difficult to question our opinions. Further, it’s also why when our worldview is confronted, we often feel threatened or under attack. Perspective isn’t merely something we have, it’s the fundamental ground upon which we interact in and with the world. Coming back to the nautical metaphor, it’d be like someone removing and inspecting pieces of the hull from your boat as you come in to dock. Similar occurs when we question ourselves, ripping the floorboards out and letting in water. Talk about scary!
The binding process is automatic and unconscious for the vast majority of us in the majority of our lives. Ponder for a moment just where your thoughts come from, they arise without consideration fully formed and connected. Even attempting to think about your thinking requires the same process for those same thoughts are arising just as fully formed as the ones you’re attempting to contemplate! This can be amusing, but also frustrating and, when we police our thoughts from a desire to control them, is completely futile.
This is where mindfulness practices can be helpful, not for control, but for being more aware of our thoughts/impulses at any given moment. Being ‘caught up’ in a thought/feeling is to fall victim to the notion that a singular story encompasses the whole of your experience. Mindfulness helps us identify the ‘thinker behind the thinking’ and recognize how much broader our potential is than any single thought/feeling can hold.
Reliance on the Personal
As we recognize no single story can hold the entirety of our own experience, so it becomes easy to see how no single story can hold the entirety of anyone else’s experience either. I’m reminded of the movie “Stargate” where movement through different galaxies is explained. You need six points of reference to identify a destination, but you also need a place of origin. That origin is individual perspective and the destination is the story cobbled together from several points within experience.
With such an image in mind and the power of interstellar travel firmly in our imagination, it is little wonder we all rely so heavily on personal stories or ‘anecdotes’ to structure what we believe to be true about ourselves and the world.
Importantly, “anecdotal evidence” does not simply mean “my own personal experience.” There is a causal connection being made between perception and what the world is or is supposed to be. Going back to “Stargate”, we don’t select disparate points haphazardly, but with the bedrock belief that in doing so we are defining a particular location in the universe. In other words, within the world of personal belief, there exists in the space between perspective and destination a sacred connecting line of ‘WHAT IS.’
We like our stories to be right, otherwise we wouldn’t be telling them, and they certainly feel right because having that feeling means we get to move forward in the world as if we know what’s going on. Thankfully, questioning our stories doesn’t require us to act as if we’re cast adrift in a world without meaning and truth. What it does require of us is a willingness to accept the limits of perspective and to actively engage in more perspective-taking. We may not be traveling amongst the stars, at least not yet, but our universe will still get a whole lot bigger and provide a greater potential for our lives.
For a podcast further exploring this topic, check out: The Mighty Anecdote