Believing we’ve moved beyond religious myth, we mistake our culture’s newest story for the world itself.
The American poet Muriel Rukeyser famously wrote that “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” We are not just animals that use language: we are storytelling creatures, for telling stories is a fundamental activity of all people in all cultures. The Canadian cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald expresses this well:
Language is basically for telling stories. . . . A gathering of modern postindustrial Westerners around the family table, exchanging anecdotes and accounts of recent events, does not look much different from a similar gathering in a Stone Age setting. Talk flows freely, almost entirely in the narrative mode. Stories are told and disputed; and a collective version of recent events is gradually hammered out as the meal progresses. The narrative mode is basic, perhaps the basic product of language.
Stories, then, are more than just stories. It is with our stories that we make sense of the world. We do not experience a world and afterward make up stories to understand it. Stories teach us what is real, what is true, and what is possible. They are not abstractions from life (though they can be that); they are necessary for our engagement with life. As the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”
Unaware that our stories are stories, we usually experience them as the world. Like fish that do not see the water they swim in, we normally do not notice the medium we dwell within. We take for granted that the world we experience is just the way things are. But our concepts and ideas about the world, like the stories they are part of, strongly affect our perception of reality. In Buddhist practice, one learns, early on and then continually, the truth of my favorite bumper sticker: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
This recognition may lead to the wish to strip away any and all accounts of the world and “return” to the reality behind them, to get back to the bare facts of experience. But that too is enacting a story, the story of “letting go of stories.” The point here is not to deny that there is a world apart from our stories; rather, it is to say that the way we understand the world is by “storying” it. Unlike the proverbial fish, however, we can change the water we swim within. Our relationship with stories can be transformed.
Stories are constructs that can be reconstructed, but they are not free-floating. In other words, we cocreate the world we live in. We need stories that account for climate change and enable us to address it. We cannot simply un-story global warming—although some fossil fuel companies have tried. Living according to certain types of stories tends to increase suffering, and living different stories can reduce suffering.
David Loy is a writer and teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition and author of A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World.
Originally published as The World is made of Stores, in Tricycle, Summer 2015.