Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Telling stories about telling stories

“No one has ever been angry at another human being—we're only angry at our story of them.”—Byron Katie

There are things that some people do that tend to make me angry. The list is fairly long—embarrassingly long, in fact. Close to the top of the list is having someone—anyone—try to explain why I do the things I do, why I believe the things I believe, or why I have the attitudes I have. So, for example, if someone were to come along and say “The reason you tend to get angry when people explain what you do is because you have unresolved issues with your mother, who had a tendency to try to explain your behavior,” or “It's not at all surprising that you get angry when someone tries to explain your behavior, given that you have carelessly let yourself become a victim of overweaning pride and thus have the arrogant view of yourself that no one but you can possibly understand how you think.” It is not only relatively unflattering stories that annoy me. Nor is it only stories about me that annoy me. I just don't like it much when people make up stories, even pretty good and probably true stories, about other people's deliberate and unwitting behavior.

Stories, it has to be admitted at the outset, make the world go around. (That is a figure of speech, not intended as a scientific explanation of why the earth moves around the sun or spins on its own axis.) Countries go to war because of stories they make up and then believe. The United States invaded Mexico because of a story that President Polk told about the treacherous intentions of the neighbor to the south. More recently, the United States invaded Iraq because of a story that the Bush administration told about the treacherous intentions of Saddam Hussein. I spent the better part of my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood hearing stories about what a danger Communism posed to American freedom—American freedom itself being a major plot in yet another story that Americans have loved to tell themselves. Economies fall because of stories that people tell and then believe. Economies also recover because of stories that people tell and then believe. Some people prepare for the end of civilization as we know it because of stories they tell.

On a more individual level, people not only get angry at the stories they tell of other people. People also fall in love with the stories they tell of other people. (Narcissists, of course, fall in love with stories they tell about themselves.) People get married, and then divorced, as a result of stories they tell and then believe about other people in their lives. People are hired and fired because of stories that others tell about them. Children are disinherited because of stories their parents believe about them. People are sent to prison because of stories that judges and juries tell themselves about the accused. People are put to death because of stories that people believe about them.

Whether stories are true makes very little difference. What makes things happen is that stories are believed. Stories come true because people tell them and act as if they are true. Good things happen because of stories people believe, and horrible things happen because of stories people believe. Stories do not care what comes of them; stories only demand to be told.

In Buddhist teaching there is a word for the stories people tell to account for what they are experiencing. Buddhists call these stories prapañca. According to Buddhist psychology almost all of us have an obsessive tendency to want to understand what we are experiencing. Rather than simply noticing, for example, that there is an expectation to find a jar of peanut butter in the pantry, followed by a failure to see a jar of peanut butter in the pantry, one makes up a story to explain the mystery of the missing peanut butter. Someone took some peanut butter and then failed to put the peanut butter container back in the pantry; it was probably left open on the countertop and is now filled with ants. Someone used the last of the peanut butter without making sure to add peanut butter to the shopping list. Someone raided the pantry and stole the peanut butter. A team of very clever cockroaches carried the peanut butter jar outside and ate it, glass and all. An errant black hole came through the house and sucked the peanut butter into it. There never was a jar of peanut butter in the pantry, and my delusional belief that there was could very well be an early warning sign of Alzheimer's disease.

A key teaching of Buddhism is that a great deal of the pain, frustration, anger, envy, jealousy, anxiety, depression and expectation we human beings experience is a result of prapañca. We tell stories about nearly everything we experience, and about things we do not experience, and then we suffer because of the stories we have told. The obsessive need to come up with a story is a kind of addiction. Or so the Buddhist story goes. As is the case with most stories, it might have been better had that story never been told.

What would it be like to go through a day without telling any stories? What would it be like just to see sights, hear sounds, smell odors, taste tastes and feel corporeal sensations and stop there, without giving any account of them? What would it be like to hear the stories that others tell and simply observe them, without telling stories about why others tell the stories they tell? It might be interesting to experiment with living a day, or even a few hours of a day, in a narrative-free state of simple observance of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and bodily sensations. It might be interesting to cultivate a habit of catching oneself in the act of telling a story and then to refuse to finish telling the story.

Whether it would be interesting to live without telling stories is something one can never know without trying it. Do you feel like trying it? If so, go ahead and do it. I promise not to tell a story explaining why you decided to try it out—or why you decided that trying it out would be a waste of time.