Escape from the Narrative Matrix

Part I:  Reclaim Your Narrative Filter

Take a moment with me to examine who and what we are.  We are alive.  We see, touch, hear, smell, taste.  Time passes, second by second.  We have certain skills, certain routines, certain patterns of activity.  Such is the substance of our objective reality, and on its own it has no meaning whatsoever.

Thought and meaning are the intersection of perceived reality and narrative.  To be conscious is to inhabit a world of stories.  When we see a face that we recognize as Mother, what we experience is a personal story of what Mother means to us – a collection of memories and emotions that is unique to each person.  What we consider to be ourselves, our identities, is an exquisitely complex tapestry of stories – layer upon layer – without which we effectively would not exist.

Human existence, then, is a many-dimensional interwoven tapestry of tapestries:  stories that contradict, that reinforce, that evolve and coalesce and crystallize into shared interpretations of reality:  beliefs, movements, philosophies, religions, mission statements, political platforms, and ideologies. 

Sit with that thought for a moment.  Examine the stories that make up your life, your identity, your personal politics, your joys and hopes and dreams and fears. 

Then take a step back, if you can.  Rather than seeing the world through the lens of your stories, shift your focus to the stories themselves.  Why do you believe them?  What does each particular story contribute to your sense of self?  How did each story find a place inside of you? 

Take care, for this way lies madness.  Our stories define our reality.  If we question too many of our stories, we can lose touch with reality.  At the same time, this way lies enlightenment and personal growth.  To change our personal stories is to change our lives.  To change our collective stories is to change our world.  And while we might not agree what change is needed in the world, nearly all of us are convinced that we cannot simply continue in the direction we are going for much longer.

The stories we are told and that we tell ourselves may be objectively true or false.  But very seldom is a story entirely true or entirely false.  Nearly all stories – scientific theories, religious teachings, even our own memories – contain elements of truth and elements of falsehood, degrees of certainty and uncertainty.  And furthermore the truth of a particular story may be relative; it may depend on other stories.  For example, whether or not we believe abortion is murder in a particular context depends on when exactly we believe a developing fetus becomes a human being. 

Of course, each of us feels that the stories we choose to embrace are true and that conflicting stories must therefore be false.  To critically examine our narratives we must also relax this conviction somewhat.  We need to explore our cognitive dissonances – the ways in which our stories contradict each other or place us at odds with our values, our sense of self, our stated goals.

Just as our visual cortex must construct a meaningful picture from the nearly infinite optical detail we perceive every second, our minds must construct a meaningful identity and worldview from the infinite cacophony of narrative that surrounds and envelops us.  We all have narrative filters, and they operate almost entirely subconsciously.  Stories that mesh with our existing stories are more likely to get in, as are stories that are delivered by someone we trust, or that speak to our ambitions, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our uncertainties. 

It is possible to intentionally jam or overwhelm someone’s narrative filter.  We call this gaslighting, manipulation, or abuse.  Stories of shame or self-doubt can mask real experiences of pain and suffering.  Stories of loyalty, love, or affection can erase past experiences of harm. 

It is also extremely tempting to outsource our narrative filters.  Gurus and religions and dogmas and political parties offer us entire narrative frameworks that reduce uncertain complexity to confident simplicity.  I might choose, for example, to embrace Catholicism, an entire collection of stories, and then my priest might tell me to join the Republican Party.  If I accept his advice, then by making just two choices (Catholic, Republican) I now have stories and positions about just about everything:  God, life after death, abortion, sexuality, role of government, gun rights, foreign policy, immigration, and the list goes on and on. 

There is a major problem with this, however, which will become clearer in Part II.  Aside from the fact that outsourcing our narrative filters limits our potential for self-actualization– for discovering who we really are as unique individuals – we are also giving away our power.  And because there are no gods or angels here on Earth – only human beings with the same flaws as ourselves – we sometimes find ourselves giving away our power to pedophile priests, to sociopathic politicians, to biased journalists, to self-described “experts”, to people who abuse our trust in their stories to manipulate us for their own ends. 

So, I ask of you, reclaim your narrative filter.  Rather than focusing on who is telling the stories – and your predefined perceptions about their integrity and trustworthiness – focus on the stories themselves.  Ask yourself:  Is this story consistent with my experience of the world?  Will believing this story help to improve my life, and to improve human coexistence?  Does someone else want me to believe this story, and if so why?  Is this story meant to distract me from a different story?  If so, what stories am I being distracted from?

And take a moment to consider those people, in your community and around the world, who your stories say you ought to hate and distrust.  Ask yourself:  is it reasonable to think that they really want to attack my religion or take away my guns or install a theocracy or destroy the environment?  Or is it more likely that they want to bake cookies and raise children and grow gardens and spend too much time on Facebook?  Is it possible to begin to rehumanize each other, to build common ground, by focusing on our similarities and shared interests rather than exaggerated caricatures of our differences?

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