The Narratives That Shape Our World

We are not just experiencing the world but constantly interpreting it as we go.

Pure experience is the immersion in whatever presents itself, without interpretation, categorization, expectation. Narration is taking what we experience and giving it meaning by giving it a place in relation to the pre-existing structures in our mind.

Because we seldom, if ever, stop our internal monologue when we interact with the world, what we tend to call ‘experience’ is not the experience itself, but the narrated version of it. By the time we become aware of what is going on our ‘experience’ has already been shaped by our expectations, categorized, structured, interpreted, classified, …

Since the act of narration is strictly sequential, and limited to what can be fitted into our mental structures and frameworks, it is by necessity a diminished version of the total experience presenting itself to us. It presents things in sequence that may well have occurred in parallel, or in a different order, or non-consecutively; it leaves out things that do not fit the pre-existing structures, or misrepresents them so they do fit in. This constant narrative provides us with an ordered version of the Universe we live in. It soothes us by giving us a feeling of having some control: we feel we understand events, or at least their causality and sequencing; we feel we can reasonably predict events based on what has gone before; we feel we can control future events by modifying our actions based on our understanding.

To be fair, for many aspects of our daily reality this feeling is not without merit. Many aspects of our daily lives are structured enough to be somewhat understandable, predictable, and malleable. This is especially true for the social aspects of our lives, which are shaped by the collective narratives we all take part in.

But it is bound to fail for the more complex aspects; the chaotic, unbounded, unstructured, unclassified larger reality we only experience the filtered version of.

This leads me to the central thesis this blog revolves around: that our society is almost completely a narrated reality: a fictionalized and heavily filtered version of the reality that exists outside our socialized minds. If that is true it follows that our society can be changed quite simply by changing the collective narrative that keeps it going. Change the story, change history. It’s that simple.

But is it?

The problem with the collective narrative we call society is that it is very resilient and resistant to deliberate change. Sure, it is constantly evolving, adapting to forces both inside and outside its narrative construct. But it seems to do so on its own accord, without deliberate intervention from us humans, happily or unhappily living inside the construct and adapting our interpretation of the world as the narrative dictates. Even people that rebel against the prevailing narrative seem bound to do so using the same structures and frameworks as the narrative they are rebelling against. One could even say that by fighting it they give it credence, and demonstrate they perceive it as real. Real enough to fight against. After all, no one would fight an imaginary dragon, would they?

The societal narrative is both real and fictional, it seems. Fictional in that it consists only in the collective minds of the people taking part; it is a ‘mind-construct’, a fictionalized narrative constructed by all of us to make sense of the world around us, and to provide the mechanisms and controls we seem to need to cohere together as a society. Real in that this narrative has deep, wide, far-reaching consequences for the world we live in. By shaping our behaviors, expectations, and dreams; by informing our understanding of the world; by directing our attention and energy; by limiting and guiding our decision-making; our collective narrative makes us shape a physical reality that matches (as closely as possible) the fictional one. Not consciously, but by the simple fact that the fiction is the framework that informs, shapes, and drives our thoughts and actions.

I believe that the wider the gap is between the collective fiction and the physical reality it lives in, the more friction there will be in our efforts to shape the physical reality to our imagined one. That friction – as all friction does – generates resistance, heat, and debris. Resistance as a measure of how much energy is needed to effect the change or maintain its momentum. Heat as a measure of discomfort, dissatisfaction, unrest caused by our sub-conscious sense that things are not quite as they should be. Debris as a measure of the fall-out of our failure to line both realities up perfectly to each other: the people losing out; the inequality of opportunity and access; the disenfranchised; the discriminated; the exiled….

By this measure, it seems to me, we are not doing so well right now. Looking at the damage we are doing to the environment, the rising inequality, the fragmentation and polarisation we see across the globe, I personally feel our collective narrative has drifted quite far from what it should be. In my darker moments I cannot help but think we have created a collective nightmare we find almost impossible to wake up from.

I will not suggest that humankind should stop its narrative process. It is quite likely impossible for us to do so: it’s the very mechanism we use to be able to cope with the world we live in. But I will argue it is high time we examine this collective narrative we have developed over the past centuries and try, together, deliberately, and consciously to push it in a new direction. Looking at the state of the world, our story has always been a mixed bag: some had it good, some had it bad; wars were waged, peace was made and maintained; civilizations came and went. But on the whole the fallout caused by our fictional mismatches with physical reality was local in character and effect. Even when it wiped out whole civilizations, none of those civilizations covered more than a small part of our planet, leaving the rest of the planet unaffected or resilient enough to absorb the fallout and move on.

Now, for the first time in known human history (for if it did happen before and failed, we would not possibly know about it) we have created a truly global society, with a collective narrative that connects and binds us all. This narrative has brought us astounding technical progress, unimaginable wealth, and an avalanche of scientific discovery. But at the same time it is degrading our physical reality at an accelerating pace. Our planet cannot absorb this level of fallout, this level of mismatch between what we believe and what those believes make us do to our environment. If we do not find a new narrative soon, it will be the end of our existence: the planet will not be able to sustain us, and we will disappear like so many civilizations before us. Only this time it will be a global affair, quite possibly wiping humanity out altogether, or reducing us to a state more primitive than we’ve been in for a long, long, time. It may even be disastrous enough to threaten life on the planet as a whole – we seem to have that power.

So, let’s stop this juggernaut from crushing the world around us. Change the narrative that drives it. Find a new fiction. A fiction that takes all that we have learned, experienced, witnessed and incorporates it into new structures and frameworks to guide our future actions. Let’s find a story that leads to a new balance between us and the physical reality we live in. Let’s do it now, before one will be forced upon us or all possibility to have a collective fiction will be taken from us.