2. Storytelling


“The past isn’t fixed and frozen in place. Instead, its meaning changes as life unfolds.” — Parker Palmer

Most of us learned that once upon a time the Earth was thought to be at the center of the universe and all the planets and stars revolved around us. Until Copernicus came along in the 16th century and saw a different story. He wrote “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” only near the end of his life — knowing what happened to people who disagreed with the prevailing story. His book arrived on the day he died. It was forbidden by the Vatican and largely ignored for 70 years.

geocentricThe data from Galileo’s telescope proved that Copernicus’ theory was right — the Earth revolved around the sun. At least one man, philosopher Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake for publicly supporting Copernicus’ model (even though the Bible doesn’t actually talk about astronomy). Galileo agreed to retract his theory for many years. After he published it in 1632, he was condemned to house arrest for the rest of his life.

Telling stories is how we lay down a groove in society — whether it is fables about morality, or news commentators that prompt us to expect certain behavior from certain people, or dictators that command adherence to a certain way of thinking.

Even though, like 12 lines on a piece of paper, our stories are simply interpretations of what our (unreliable) brain tells us exists. As we noted in “1. Perception,” magicians have learned that it is easy to make our brains think something is real — light, matter, stories, interpretation — by taking advantage of the structure our minds like to impose. We have been trained to believe, for example, that a blue dress could never be gold.

Yet every story is a concept that we’ve made up, and is thus much more open to interpretation than we tend to feel comfortable with. Our stories are more simply the prevailing idea of how things are, or how we want them to be.

As in the case of Copernicus and the Bible, every story can change when new details are added. The earth has never technically been the center of the universe, contrary to what the early story said, except in our minds. And now that we recognize even our galaxy is not the center of the universe, gradually we are learning that there is much more out there out there than we are capable of measuring or seeing.

It is easy to get confused or angry or depressed. We tend to be looking for structure where none exists.

How Storylines Shift Even in One Generation

I watched the entire Mad Men series in a few months. It was a great reminder of how our society once upon a time consisted of cigarette-smoking Mad Men with mistresses and housewives, living in a world in which black and white did not mix and women in the workplace were primarily secretaries.

Mad Men still exist. Black and white still exists. But, despite the despair we sometimes feel, society has shifted in important ways since then. And it will continue to do so, based on the stories we listen to. The storytellers who influence us.

Sixty years ago housewives were exhorted to make themselves pretty, with food on the table, before their man came home. Cigarette smoking was common and promoted everywhere. Seat belts were rare. Families and schools had bomb shelters. Women were not allowed to compete, keep their maiden name, or have leadership roles outside the home. Segregated classrooms, bathrooms, drinking fountains and neighborhoods were the norm.

We will always have people who like the old ways and are uncomfortable living with new ways. We will always face toxic issues that divide us. We can be paralyzed, or angry, with daily reminders of how terrorism – today’s version of The Red Menace – and gun rights and LGBTQ rights and corporations and politics and the 1% are tearing us apart.

We have learned to point to others as ignorant or unaware or evil – and that the solution lies within reach if only they….

It is the simple approach.

What if we look at science and notice that – even in the world of precise measurement and theory – we’ve always done a lot of shifting about what we see as “truth” and “rightness.”

“Today the general atmosphere is such that [we] can do little more than state, and restate, a particular point of view. Various approaches are generally taken to be rivals. What is needed is for each person to be able to hold several points of view.” — “Science, Order and Creativity,” David Bohm/David Peat, 1987

Bohm and Peat wrote about Paradigms, which involves taking ideas and concepts for granted, without realizing it. Believing in absolute truths. We fight anyone who disturbs the fixed storyline. It generally takes a revolution to break it apart and develop something new.