It’s All Stories

learning-164331_1280What follows is an excerpt I recently found in my personal journal. I wrote it Friday, November 25th, 2005, the day after Thanksgiving. It offers the reader a chance to peek inside my mind as I consider some new ideas that I found extremely compelling at the time, and far more so ever since, right up to this moment. In fact, a few months later, I began writing a book, Time, Myth & Magic, that is still a work in progress. Notice also that part way through this piece, I start talking to the reader, even though this was written in and for a personal journal. By that time, I had realized that some day someone else would be reading it, and there was no point pretending otherwise. I guess today is that day.


So I have been thinking more and more about the stories I tell myself that are best expressed in this way. Although I am learning about the true nature of stories in general, I feel no closer to unraveling my own. I feel the need to find the truth of my stories so that I can at least understand, if not change them. It is becoming almost an obsession, but a benevolent one. It feels more like a survival skill that I am far from mastering. Here are some of the things I have learned so far.

First, I am increasingly certain that I am right about it all being stories, “it” meaning our experience of being alive as ourselves. Once one realizes that our entire experience occurs in the spacious present moment, the intrinsic role of our stories becomes obvious and inescapable. There is no other explanation. The past and future, the elsewhere in space, and our entire interpretation of the present are just collections of stories, personal myths if you like, that we tell ourselves to give context and meaning to everything we experience. This is true even of our sense of self in every detail.

The next thing I questioned was the source of these stories, their nature, and the fantastic tenacity they seem to possess. Then, of course, there is the question of the rules by which old ones can be modified or retired, and new ones added to the mix. This has proven to be a most interesting pursuit.

The temptation, when answering the question of their source, is to look into the “past.” But that is obviously circular, since the past itself is just another story. So the source of our stories must also be in the present, just as the stories themselves are, just as everything else within our experience is and must be. There is a certain rootlessness to this. It is analogous to having both feet firmly planted in thin air. This troubled me for a while, until I realized that it is true: the whole of our physical existence, including but not limited to, physical reality itself, is an arbitrary work of fiction. What is important is that behind and everywhere within it is agreement on that fiction. This is the real meaning of phrases like “the world of agreement.”

So what seems to be true is that there is only one basic story that we share with everyone with whom we interact, though we each have our own variations. Yet even the variations must be faithful to the root story or we are considered at least a hair off center, if not outright insane. This story of ours is a work in progress that, though it is all happening in the spacious present, gives the appearance of going back billions of years. Time can be viewed as a version control system by which we increment the evolution of our shared story. History, then, is an account of that evolution retrospectively.

Thirty years ago I made the observation that nothing is ever destroyed or removed (at least that’s what is in my story). Change occurs by addition only. Yet there is nothing that cannot be changed into anything else whatsoever by addition. If you add enough of the right stuff to it, its original character and identity can be transformed into anything at all. So it is with our stories. We cannot remove anything from them: we can only add to them. This can be done, however, in a way that has the effect of obscuring certain facets to the extent that they seem to disappear altogether.

But we cannot add just  any old thing to our story willy-nilly. There is tremendous resistance to that. Instead we can only add things that connect well to what is already there. It is not so different from Lego blocks: you can add them together in certain ways, but you cannot just jam a peach pit or quartz crystal into them and expect it to fit. There must be a reciprocity between the new addition and some point on the main body.

However, if that were all there was to it, nothing really new could ever change. Fortunately, this is not the case. So how do we maintain this consistency and continuity while allowing for innovation and real change? Good question, and I have a good answer: we must either be very clever or else we need to allow loopholes. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s take the clever approach first. The best example of how this works is the way in which Albert Einstein transformed the reality of Sir Isaac Newton into the one that produce the atomic bomb and quantum mechanics. He did not invalidate Newton’s laws of gravity, motion, and thermodynamics. Instead, Einstein simply put them under a microscope and pointed out that they were only approximations of the way things really work—an excellent approximation, but an approximation nonetheless. As it turns out, Newton’s formulas work extraordinarily well, even today, until you get into mindbogglingly large magnitudes of space, time, mass or energy. In fact, NASA uses them (rather than Einstein’s relativistic ones) in their interplanetary navigation to this day.

To give you a clear picture of how this works, consider the formulas each of these men created to describe the mass of a body in motion. Newton’s is very simple:

Mm= Mo

where Mo is the original mass at rest, and Mm is the same mass in motion.

In other words, there is no difference between the two. Motion does not affect mass. Einstein, however, added some fine tuning. His version goes like this:

Mm= Mo/(1- v2/c2)½

where v=the velocity of the mass and c= the speed of light.

What is important to understand here is the effect changes in the mass’s velocity have on the objects mass in motion. To see this, one only needs to examine the two extreme examples of velocity: zero and the speed of light. If v=0, then v2/c2=0, 1-0=1, the square root of 1 is 1, and the mass at rest divided by 1 is itself. In other words, exactly what Newton said.

However, when we give velocity a value of the speed of light, we get something entirely different. Now v2/c2 is equal to 1, 1-1=0, and Mo/0 is…wait a minute, we are not allowed to divide by zero! So mass cannot be defined at exactly the speed of light! We don’t have the math for it. However, if velocity were 99.99999% the speed of light, then we can see that as v approaches c, the value of Mm approaches infinity.

What all this means is that at velocities that are not particularly close to the speed of light, the mass of an object does not change appreciably from its rest mass. Only as it starts to approach the speed of light does it begin to get more massive, to the point where, as it approaches that barrier, it has nearly infinite mass. This is the basic relationship that has led to the famous conclusion that no mass can be accelerated to, much less beyond, the speed of light. It is considered an absolute barrier to the physical dimension.

So, getting back to our original point—how one can add dramatically new elements to our collective story line if we are clever enough—this is how Einstein added everything to our universe that requires relativity to exist and make any sense at all. He did not have to destroy or remove Newton’s Laws: he had only to modify them by addition, in this case by fine tuning. You could say he added a relativistic fudge factor. Had this extension not been added, then none of our modern technology could even exist: not only the bomb and nuclear power, but computers, exotic materials, and others too numerous to mention. In other words, it was HUGE! It had the effect of increasing the breadth, depth, and scope of physical reality by—pardon the expression—light-years.

So we can add new and radically different plot elements to our shared and private stories in this way, but though it may not take an Einstein to do so this way, it does require a certain creative bend that many of us lack.

Enter the other, and far more common, method of innovation by story extension: the loophole. By loophole I simply mean a catchall explanation, a way of joining a new story element to the original, that allows for some degree of mismatch. One of the most obvious of these is called a miracle. The dictionary defines a miracle thusly:

A marvelous event manifesting a supernatural act of God.

The operative word here is supernatural. In other words, “the rules are suspended.” This creates the loophole. However, we cannot call every little thing we would like to add to our story a miracle, just because it doesn’t fit into the standard template. So this loophole is of limited use, being generally reserved for extraordinary events that are at once extremely compelling (usually in the positive sense) and at the same time without explanation within the context of our existing story.

Other versions of the supernatural loophole are less restrictive. Everything from flying saucers to ESP to channeling to [fill in the blank] are all candidates for this type of loophole. So this is the one that is most often used by the majority of people. Yet even this approach has its limits. If everything becomes an exception, what happens to the rule? How will you be able to share your new version of our story with others who are not as lenient about the freewheeling use of loopholes? If you abuse this tactic, you are likely to take your story additions to your grave with you, leaving no imprint behind that they ever existed (yes, I know, just another story).

So when all is said and done, we are still left with the story-in-progress, and all the personalized versions we all cling to.

There is one more major feature of our stories that we haven’t yet touched on: tenacity. Once a new element is added to the story and becomes accepted, it wants to be forever. If you even think about adding something that contradicts it, you will hear screaming the like of which would be upsetting in Hades. For good or ill, we are in certain major respects bound to our existing stories. Only by adding new elements in an acceptable way can we obscure or reverse outdated or undesirable elements. But there is a good reason for this.

First, if we are to share reality, we must agree on what it is. Otherwise, we are like jazz musicians who get together to jam, but find that they each know the same tune in different keys. What a cacophony that would be. Similarly, if your version of the story said that Hitler won WWII, imagine how that would match up with the official version of other people’s WWII story. So one general version prevails, and though some freedom is allowed in the details, the main thrust must be accepted more or less unanimously.

This, however, brings up an interesting and potentially powerful point: differences between individual stories only become important when we start comparing them. For example, half the people you know may have accepted stories where there was a significantly different end to WWII than the one you accept. But if the subject never comes up between you, neither party would have any way of knowing that these differences exist. So what we are really talking about here is not that our personal versions of the story have to agree in every minute detail, but that we can only share the portions of our stories that do. As long as we stay away from the “trouble spots,” we can interact.

One more point, just to satisfy the more astute: what about ordinary disagreements between individuals. Surely there is no commonality there? Well, I admit it appears so at first blush. But upon closer examination, you will find that in such cases, each participant actually has accepted the point of view of their counterpart, but they have tried to suppress it (unsuccessfully). So, they don’t think of themselves as believing that variation, and consequently feel obliged to argue against it, while all the time there is someplace within them that actually agrees. This is what brings together people like that. They are trying to work out these particular variations until there is unanimity within their individual story. Argument and dialog is one way to accomplish that. So even though there may seem to be unbridgeable gaps between people’s stories, they are in actuality nothing more than penciled in extensions that have yet to be fully worked out and integrated.

And this whole piece is just one such. If there was nothing in you that was consistent with and open to these views, you would not only not be reading this, but would likely live your entire life without being aware that it (or I) existed. The fact that you are experiencing it means that there is something within you that thinks it is, or may be, true. No exceptions.

Conversely, if you disagree with me, and I find out about it, then I must have my own doubts (or mixed certainties, as I like to call them). If, on the other hand, I don’t find out, then it says volumes about you, but little about me.

So that’s the short course on stories. There is so very much more to it, even now, but this is all I have worked out so far that I’m prepared to stand behind.

In closing let me say that one of the challenges I face in exploring this direction lies in integrating it with my own story. I am trying to use the same kind of approach Einstein did, because it tends to be more rigorous, more stable, and more enduring. The cheap out (miracles) just doesn’t give one much to build on afterward, and I seek only that which will seed great extensions to the story, those that can make an extensive, powerful, and positive change for anyone who chooses to adopt them.

So on the day-after-Thanksgiving, I am above all thankful for the opportunity and ability to explore in these kinds of directions. It is, I believe, what I came here to do above all other things. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

And this is my story today, such as it is. What’s yours?

If you’d like to see more of the implications of this perspective, take a look at this.

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