Guest Blogger

We Must Break Free From Our Narratives

Filed By Guest Blogger | October 01, 2014 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: breaking free, narrative, personal story

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Dominick L. Auci earned his Ph.D. in Pathology from Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn and served for many years as Assistant Professor. He has written more than 40 peer-reviewed publications and currently resides with his husband in Louisville, Kentucky.

A narrative is any written, spoken or animated, account of connected events. Narratives are storytelling. They guide behavior, relate history, and define roles. Passed from one generation to the next, they can become living things that grow and coagulate into the mythos upon which entire civilizations rise.

Personal narratives tell the story of what happened to you. We humans are natural storytellers. It is an imperative skill for a creature that gave up instinct for learned behavior tens of millions of years ago. If you aren't a good storyteller and don't come from a long line of good storytellers, there's practically no chance that you're reading this now. Even toddlers tell great stories about themselves.

Like any good storyteller, we all structure and embellish our personal narratives throughout life. We fashion a strong sharp hook, set the scene, and state our thesis. We describe beginning, middle, and ending action. We analyze, reflect, and open new chapters every few years or so.

whats-your-story-blocks.jpgIt is utterly organic to perceive ourselves as the main character of the story. There isn't a single person who hasn't entertained, on some level, the fantasy that they themselves, out of all humans, will somehow find the secret of immortality. All great tales are based on this premise.

What then could be more natural than to perceive events in the context of our own personal narratives? Every object, experience, or observation - almost as soon as it amalgamates into conscious presence - is fitted into our own personal story. As it slips snuggly in place, a warm glow flows over us from having been perfectly right all along.

There are many evolutionary advantages to this neurological shortcut. Unlike chickens, which hatch more or less knowing how to be successful chickens, human babies have no idea how to be successful humans. They have a lot to learn, and fast. Storytelling is a great didactic device.

It is also powerful social glue. Nationalities, races, creeds, genders, sexual orientations, political parties - just about every group that humans can assort themselves into - have their own narratives. The story of Matthew Shepard figures prominently in our own modern LGBTQ narrative and instantly binds us together.

The greatest and most influential minds were legendary storytellers. Jesus Christ was arguably the best of the lot. His genius was in parables that still resonate down through the ages. All charismatic leaders fully realize the limitations of fact. A good story well told is far more convincing than mere evidence.

There is a downside. Something happens in the world: a police officer kills a suspect, a beloved celebrity commits suicide, one country invades another, a star athlete does something provocative, or a religious leader makes a controversial statement. At the speed of light, lines are drawn. Floods of information and misinformation are combed for supporting evidence that interprets the event in the context of narratives.

Neither honest discussions nor objective analyses occur, no one bothers to wait for facts or due process. Instead, self-righteous indignation, ego stroking, and that wonderful feeling of being just a little bit superior to the next guy follow avalanches of premature conclusions.

When critical thinking becomes so utterly short-circuited, the mind snaps shut and human conflict becomes inevitable. The very same mechanisms drive religious thinking, although even atheists are afflicted. As with fast cars, big houses, or trophy spouses, false identities arise that fight like demons to survive. Contradictory or challenging suggestions are experienced and/or dismissed as provocations, trolling, and threats, even as grave dangers.

breaking-free-chains.jpgIt is extremely difficult to break free of our narratives, even when they obviously lead to preposterous conclusions. Only saints do it perfectly. The rest of us struggle along, getting better at it only slowly with supreme effort.

It demands extraordinary capacities to see past our own stories so that we can look at the world in new ways. It involves that uniquely human capacity to put oneself in someone else's shoes, not merely thinking as you would in their stead, but really trying to think differently. It demands honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness.

Honesty means a preeminent desire for truth - defined not by wishful thinking, but by reproducible, empirical evidence. It often means waiting for the facts to come out and accepting uncertainty in the meantime. Why not concede the benefit of the doubt? Truth is always tentative anyway. Contradictory or challenging evidence is greeted not with anger, but with delighted enthusiasm, as a harbinger of new or more precise knowledge.

Open-mindedness, as the term implies, means an authentic readiness to change our minds and cast aside even our most deeply-held convictions. It means being receptive and vulnerable to new ideas and information. First and foremost, it means breaking delusions and quitting the annoying habit of protecting ego at all costs. It means recognizing that all individuals, including our own selves, frequently hold beliefs that are just plain wrong.

Willingness is the most indispensable ingredient. Breaking the paradigm of narratives takes an act of willpower, sometimes a heroic one. However, this is willpower turned inward, aimed not at forcing the present situation to conform to our views, but rather at adjusting our views to fit into the world just as it is, right now. Above all, it means giving up all hope of making a better past. Only then do we have any real hope of making a better future.

Breaking free of narratives is a personal choice and not a particularly popular one. It is like waking oneself up from a deep sleep when it would be much easier and more comfortable to stay snuggly in bed. Egos are instantly threatened and we become marginalized from groups because suddenly, we don't really fit in anymore. The first fruits are spiritual anarchy and isolation, but these are the birth pangs of new awareness.

Most painful are interactions with those still steeped in narratives. Even loved ones often respond to us with self-righteousness, slogans, and jingoism. They call names, make threats, and occasionally carry them out. These reactions are unsettling, difficult to deal with, and can ruin relationships.

insomnia-wide-awake.jpgSo why bother staying awake? Why not just fall back asleep into our fairytales? First, it is not really possible. Like toothpaste, once it is out of the tube, there is no getting it back in. You might be able to catch a few Z's here and there, but by and large, once you know better, you're given to perpetual insomnia.

Secondly, it is our only hope - the only antidote to the religious thinking that's poisoning our planet, tearing us apart, and driving our species to extinction. It means a better life, not only for ourselves, but for the billions trudging towards unhappy destinies. It is the difference between living and existing.

Everyone loves a good story -- that's why Hollywood makes billions of dollars every year. My personal favorites are the Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. Great flicks, great stories, but hardly bases for conclusions about events that move the world.

So it is with personal and even our own beloved LGBTQ narratives: the more we get honest, open minded and willing, the more we rely on reproducible, empirical evidence, the less we rely on narratives to make decisions, the more critical thinking becomes habit.

Equality is something we in the LGBTQ community need to achieve by any means necessary, both for ourselves and for other oppressed minorities. It is quite impossible to dissociate our struggles from theirs. Maybe a really good story will help us all get there quicker, but in the long run, it is in the bag. As the metaphor of the rainbow reminds us, the universe irresistibly bends towards justice.

In the meantime, seeing past our own stories will allow us to more fully enjoy life and each other. And in the end, each other is all we've really got.

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