The delusion of narrative

An article in the New Yorker caught my eye the other day. It’s a remarkable story of a woman who is capable of building the most elaborate, emotional narratives around herself. She was caught, again and again, but she was so successful because we are addicted to storytelling.

As someone who is non-religious, I see religious mythology as a collection of excellent narratives. They’re excellent because they are cohesive, and they are narratives because they create a semblance of meaning.

There are basically two ways of seeing in the world, and one is far more cynical than the other: a) we live in a chaotic universe, which neither knows nor cares what happens to us, and b) there are larger forces at work which arrange events into orders that are too subtle for us to see.

If we went through life knowing, believing and operating on the assumption that anything could happen — no matter how low the probabilities — we would not be able to accomplish a thing. This is why we need narratives. They give us a purpose, a plan. There’s always an ending. But even more importantly, there is always a plot.

This is what makes narratives so insidiously dangerous.

Many things that happen in our lives happen for simply no reason at all, or for reasons that are out of our control. Our ability to make narratives out of our lives convinces us that we are in control of our destinies, when that is often patently untrue. The problem is that sometimes the world is a terrible and uncaring place (option a). Sometimes, shit happens. Sometimes, there is no redemption. There is no plot, and there is no reason.

It’s not that we shouldn’t have goals. Or that we shouldn’t bring ourselves to make firm decisions, even difficult ones. Especially difficult ones. There’s also no point in being zen about the madness of the universe, because everything about humanity is conditioned to expect a narrative.

It’s just that to accept the truth, I think we have to learn to expect nothing.


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