A little over a week ago, I ran into this wonderful piece of writing on the interwebs that starts with this image (on the right), and then transforms into an interesting piece of science fiction writing.
I suggest you read through it. I think it’s good, despite it’s somewhat theistic leanings (it’s fantasy, after all; fantasy can have all sorts of impossible beings to make interesting stories). But something within this piece has stuck with me, because it resonates so well with my experience.
This is from the beginning of the story, describing what happens if you choose the “yellow pill” (emphasis mine):
People’s minds are heartbreaking. Not because people are so bad, but because they’re so good.
Nobody is the villain of their own life story. You must have read hundreds of minds by now, and it’s true. Everybody thinks of themselves as an honest guy or gal just trying to get by, constantly under assault by circumstances and The System and hundreds and hundreds of assholes. They don’t just sort of believe this. They really believe it. You almost believe it yourself, when you’re deep into a reading. You can very clearly see the structure of evidence they’ve built up to support their narrative, and even though it looks silly to you, you can see why they will never escape it from the inside. You can see how every insult, every failure, no matter how deserved, is a totally unexpected kick in the gut.
This has been ringing in my head for over a week now. No, it’s been ringing in my head for at least a year, but this put succinctly an idea I’ve been wrestling with for quite a while, especially recently.
It has been ringing in my head because I can see this, clearly, in every direction. And it’s bothering me because it rings an unpleasant chord within me. This image of the yellow pill messes with the nature of reality in subtle and terrifying ways. If you consider that your worldview is nothing but a set of mini-corrections of memory, interpretations, and bias-shifts of thousands upon thousands of moments, experiences, and interactions, it might turn out that your entire reality is a fiction where you are composing yourself to be the hero.
And if everyone sees themselves as the hero, at least the vast majority of them are wrong. More importantly, it might mean that your most cherished and emotionally powerful beliefs might be incorrect. And since you act based upon your beliefs….
You get the gist.
If you are not careful, you might shift from making yourself matter to making yourself matter at the expense of others. Because you don’t actually need to be a narcissistictic asshole, sociopath, or douchemuffin to do this; everyone does it. It is the nature of our minds to do this. and if you don’t think you are doing it, then you are probably doing it more than others.
We all are carrying slightly (or, perhaps, not-so-slightly) modified versions of reality with us, all the while interacting with people to swap those versions of reality to make social groups, cultures, etc. It’s like reality is some show we all watch, and we all write fan fiction of it in our heads. Our friends are the ones whose fan fiction is more like ours, or which at least fits into the same universe coherently. Those who are either simply distant or recognized enemies are writing fan fiction that conflicts with ours too much to coexist. But in their fan fiction, they are the heroes as much as we are in ours.
Who is right? Are you going to use your narrative to determine this? It’s like a question I sometimes ask Christians; if you read the Bible, how do you know whether God or Satan is the good character? No, seriously, how do you know? If you don’t have the cultural context of Christian history and culture, would it be obvious? I don’t think it would be.
In our heads, we think of ourselves as good,. Therefore, how we remember, interpret, and react to events to which we find ourselves subject will prop us up as the good character in the story. Nobody, except insofar as we are self-deprecating, writes ourselves as the anti-hero. And even if we are self-deprecating at times, in the larger narrative we see ourselves as the brave hero who circumvents, transcends, and rises above these moments of self-deprecation and challenge.
It rises like the three-edged sword of perspective; with the sun gleaming off of it, directly into one’s eye, blinding all who wield it.
I have certainly observed my own mind doing just this. In some of my private journal writing and therapy, I have experimented with articulating my own experiences in ways that is full of hurt, anger, and both blame and personal responsibility. In venting, I was allowing the emotions which were causing me strife to compose a story based in that pain. Such compositions of emotion, while compelling, are at bottom biased and subjective. What’s more, I noticed that at other, later, times when I tried to create a more nuanced and rational articulation, the narrative derived from emotion somehow seeped in, tainting the truth. We scoot towards the comfortable end of the interpretation couch, and thus couch our descriptions accordingly.
When we make decisions from a place of emotion and subjective narration, we are opening ourselves up to lying to ourselves for the sake of comfort and self-image, and thus (ultimately) to everyone else. What’s worse, is that because emotion is the basis for all motivation and reasoning, we can rationalize, quite easily, that we made a rational decision when we have done nothing of the sort. I do this. I recognize it. What bothers me is when I see other people doing it all the while being overtly defensive about where they are sitting on their couch. Pointing out, to them, that they are sitting on the dog will usually be met with anything except recognition of that fact.
Further, when our friends act to make us feel better about ourselves, they become pulled into the narrative through the compelling nature of that emotion. Our mirror neurons fire, we empathize, and we feel their pain and the nuance and skeptical parts of us get ignored. And slowly, ever so slowly, what actually happened gets lost among those closest to us, and we develop a nice, comfortable echo-chamber for our stories. The longer this happens, the harder it is to leave the bubble that you create for yourself to see anything except your own fan fiction. Eventually, you might start to believe that your fan fiction is the original story. And this is disappointing to me in a deep way which makes me profoundly sad.
What’s the solution?
I don’t know. I want to say that we can talk, allow ourselves to hear the things which are painful to hear, but I just don’t believe that’s possible in the vast majority of cases. Unless we are willing to consider that our whole worldview, everything we think about a subject, a person, or even ourselves might be completely wrong, there is no solution here. Because unless you have the courage to consider that those really deep, profound, big feelings that you have are lying to you and leading you astray, there’s no escaping that bubble.
And this is because we have, in our culture right now, this myth that our own story, our own voice, and our own feelings are of some primary importance above that of other things. Our own personal journey is held up not as a tool for gaining perspective, but for gaining Truth. And while such personal struggles towards finding what we believe and feel may give us a sense of empowerment, it does not necessarily bring us truth. Because whether it is someone else or ourselves which dictates the narrative, we live in a dictatorship.
You do not have your own truth. Believing such a thing traps us in a narrow window of belief in which we might insist upon sticking to our guns rather than hear what another might have to say from their own foxhole. There is a risk in “finding our own voice,” because it often leads to an unwarranted confidence in our conclusions. The personal achievement of discovering something you believe and feel strongly about may feel empowering, but that empowerment is often a mirage. Freeing ourselves from the power of others, for example, feels relatively powerful. But that’s exactly how that controlling person felt the entire time they controlled you. Again, a dictatorship is a dictatorship, whether its you in control or someone else. No sense in organizing a coup just to make yourself the dictator. I guarantee that as soon as you do, someone else will start planning the next coup.
It does not matter if you are only a dictator of yourself, because so long as you define the truth through your own subjectivity, you will inevitably impose your truth onto others, whether you wish to or not.
Strength of character does not come from finding our own voice. In fact, it’s impossible not to find our own voice. Every thought, feeling, or action is our own voice, whether it speaks in our interest or not. What our culture calls finding our own voice really is the willingness to accept your own narrative as a signpost towards TheTruth. This seems, to me, to be nothing more than self-absorption, obliviousness, and possibly narcissism. It is, in short, a idolatry of the self and our limitations of perspective. I want no part of it.
Strength of character comes from the willingness to silence your voice for a moment and allow your ears to function for a while. Because while your voice is talking, you’re not listening. And if that voice is singing in your head while you are listening, then you are not having a conversation at all, but merely posturing.
I’m going to fight the voice in my head that tells me I’m right, which refuses to hear what does not fit in my narrative, and that composes rather than listens.
Being hurt by others is no excuse to be self-absorbed and deaf. It will not offer protection nor wisdom.
For similar thoughts, see these posts: