Lately I've heard a lot of people I admire very much - people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jay Lake, Matthew McConaughey (in a brilliant monologue written for him in True Detective), and an old friend of mine in New Jersey - Atheists all. As am I. - dissing the Story. I don't get it. I don't get why they don't get it.
The Story is Everything.
Here's what's got me thinking. Earlier this month, Patricia Churchland appeared on The Colbert Report talking about her new book Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, where she explains that everything we think we are, everything we think we feel, can be explained by electrical and chemical activity in the brain.
Over the past three weeks, Dr. Tyson has been having conversations with Bill Moyers, showing pieces of his new production at the Hayden Planetarium. Scenes from that production show the universe as if it were under a microscope, with bits of flotsam and jetsom floating amidst what Dr. Tyson calls, for lack of a better word (his words) Dark Matter. I got the feeling that we exist inside the lymph gland of something unfathomably enormous.
And I don't remember all of McConaughey's speech, but the gist of it is that we are all pointless blobs in the universe - there is no rhyme or reason for our existence. To paraphrase another famous movie line: We Mean Nothing. We Lose. Good Day!
And I'm nodding right along with them. Yup, I'm thinking, that's probably the nut of the thing right there. Explains a lot. So far, so wise.
But then a couple of them started in on the Story. The Story they were talking about was, of course, the Story of Creation. The Story told in scriptures. The Story that many of these folks see as a lie, and the people who believe this Story - or any other story, for that matter - as foolish. Foolish scared little peoples afraid to face the truth of their own ultimate meaninglessness.
And that's where we parted company. Because as I was listening to these folks talk about the new science of the brain, and the vastness of the universe and the undeniable meaninglessness of so many lives we have known, maybe even lived, I thought to myself - that's what the Story is for. Without a Story, we are electrical impulses and chemical reactions floating in an untethered space. Without a Story, we are meaningless.
I’m watching Simon Schama’s PBS series on The Jews, and Schama’s explanation for the persistence of the Jews has little to do with their particular beliefs – at least that’s how I heard it. The reason, he says, that the Jews have survived is The Story. Our world is full of these stories. There’s the Christmas Story and the Story of Muhammed in the Cave and The Buddha Under the Bo Tree There’s stories of the Irish famine, of the Middle Passage, and Ghandi with his spinning wheel. Not to mention the thousands of pieces of the human imagination that have woven themselves into our history, into the story of who we are.
There was an old TV series that started with the words, "There are a million stories in the naked city." It's a dark, naked universe too. And it's filled with stories. Loren Eiseley suggested once, in a book I read so long ago that the memory of one tiny piece of it is all that remains, which claimed that if human beings had a point, a raison d'etre', any reason to get out of bed in the morning at all, it was to serve as the historians of nature. We remember. We tell the Stories.
It is, I agree, a pointless enterprise. Pointless, that is, if you think it important that our Stories live on beyond time. I can understand the fear and ferocity with which some people cling to particular Stories, those that assure them of a place in the universe, of a reason they be. Once you realize that all the stories there ever were are just words wrapped around an electrical impulse triggering a chemical reaction within a matrix of dark matter - once you realize the utter, utter truth of that, well, what have you?
I say we still have Story. I say that the words we have used and will continue to use to describe those reactions are how we give meaning and shape to the world. Synapses buzz and chemicals fizz and the dark wind blows us hither and yon, but we build the world with the words we use to describe it.
I say that the Story is Everything.