Posts Tagged ‘narrative’

SERMON: “The Burden of Narrative” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

On a Fall morning some twenty years ago, I was in my canoe on the Chatahoochee River at the northern edge of Atlanta.  I paddled upstream, away from both the sight and the sound of the crowd on the bank where I’d launched the canoe.  I soon found myself in a side channel, surrounded by trees shimmering with bright yellow leaves.  The sun warmed my face and out of clear blue sky October sunlight sparkled upon the surface of the placid river.

For a moment I was completely lost in the moment — a body feeling the sun on its face, the cool air on its skin, hearing the chirping, rustling and burbling that surrounded it.  Then the other part of my monkey brain spoke up and queried — innocently enough — “How will I describe this moment in words?”.  Like a junk-yard dog lunging for the postman, I was yanked back from reverie by a short steel chain of “thought”, and was painfully aware of having just put an abrupt end to the (then) rare pleasure of self-forgetfulness and intimacy with nature.

My description is a bit severe, yes, but at the time I was still early in my struggle to deliver myself from the tyranny of my noisy brain (the “committee” as one friend called hers) and it was a rare achievement to find myself in a state of real presence in “the moment”, free of my analytical mind’s ceaseless commentary.  So I was mad at my brain for butting in, and bargaining away my sensory experience for a concise tale to be told.  It was then that I had a bit of a revelation: that for all it’s power, beauty and utility, verbal language is (by it’s very nature) reductionist.  In short, words will never be up to the task of capturing the breadth and depth of any human experience, transcendent or pedestrian.  How could they be?

A few years earlier I had stood on the snowy crest of the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque, unsteady on cross-country skis, as swiftly-moving patches of cloud would in one moment envelop me, in another reveal a glorious vista of a craggy mountain face dappled in light and shadow.  I pulled up my camera to “capture” the scene and looked through the viewfinder to frame and focus my shot.  I soon lowered the camera in despair and recognition that whatever picture I could possibly make would contain but a fraction of what I was experiencing in that moment, and, frankly, whatever fraction I caught would not be worthy (even as a reminder) of what I was seeing right there, right then.

There came a time, then, when it seemed that I had a clear choice to either continue to experience a moment OR to document it with a camera or words.  It seemed a terrible paradox that only animals were truly completely present in their experience of life (assuming that they had no words that their analytical brains could use against their experience), while us human animals could not now escape our verbalized brains (which would appear to be the cost of re-entering a truly full-being experience of living).

(In my case being an “artist” only added to my sense of being an “observer” of life: condemned to having only enough occasional “real” experiences to feed my creativity, like a dog grabbing a bone only to run and bury it for later).

Over time, however, I worked to shift the balance between experience and documentation, experimenting with it.  I began to develop an antipathy toward the camera and the story, choosing as best I could the experience of the description of it.  (My brother Bill once quipped that “There’s no such thing as a bad experience: only a good story”.  But I gradually came to the decision that no bad experience is worthwhile only for a story).

I’m happy to report that I finally reached a state of being where — instead of the constant internal commentary being occasionally interrupted by self-forgetfulness — the interruption of my enjoyment of my own physical presence in time by my noisy brain is the rarity.  If I shift my internal focus right now (as I am doing now just to check) I can almost hear the hum of my brain running behind my forehead.  I’ve heard it called the lizard brain, the dry brain, the survival brain — it is that analytical part of my “mind” that uses comparison, logic and memory to prepare plans for any potential danger it might encounter.  It’s the part of the brain that is instantly supercharged when our lives are threatened.  It is the thing that has made it possible for you and I to be here right now, alive in this moment (in no small part because it kept our ancestors alive long enough to reproduce!).  But the inescapable burden of having the big human brain our ancestor’s evolved is that this pulsing biological, chemical machine in our craniums has no “off switch”.

And our challenge is how to live with this machine in an age where we are no longer facing danger at every turn.  Which, in essence, comes down to re-calibrating our ice-age-appropriate fear response.

Another thing our brain does is construct narratives — short stories about the how and why of our experiences.  Every animal does this on some level (whether we call it “instinct” or learned behavior) so we hominids were probably doing it before we developed verbal language.  But in a way our memories don’t exist before language (try remembering your first year of life, or the day of your birth).  Language is what allows us to store and transfer information.  The scientific revolution would not have been conceivable without it.  Some researchers have proposed that it was the human adoption of verbal language that led to the “Neolithic Revolution” some forty-thousand years ago when the heretofore just-another-band of hominids made the leap into “modern humans”.

But just like the agricultural revolution, we have paid a price for our progress.  In the process of Evolution, nothing is ever gained for free (we walk upright, but we have weak backs and stretched abdominal muscles, and our internal plumbing is often convoluted and tricky).  We can talk and write and read and communicate with total strangers with a certain degree of efficiency and accuracy, yet we have large brains that have over-developed certain capacities while taking resources from others.  We are highly visual creatures — and as such have lost a great deal of our olfactory capability.

I don’t think any of us would suggest returning to walking on all fours and grunting just to be more “one” with nature (were such even possible), but it’s worth noting the “loss” for the understanding it offers for our frequent discontents and inability to relax and enjoy life.

The combination of a large brain and our highly social nature means that we are burdened (in a real sense) by our need for narrative  — the need to write the story of our own lives, to tell to others, to tell to ourselves.  I wonder if this propensity isn’t being exacerbated by our steady diet of movies, reality television and newscasts that process and package the “human interest” story of individuals struggling to overcome some tragedy or disadvantage (proof that the world is fair and God is just and that we, too, might have our story told in a similar way).

This state of active brain, verbal language and story is so completely common to us all that I find nothing in it to seriously criticize or demean.  I do, however, think it’s a good thing to recognize.  On some level we all understand the limitations of verbal language, even as we experience it’s tremendous power.

As out of fashion as poetry seems to be these days, it is the poet who comes closest to bending words to living reality and their best echo of the richness of our “animal” sensory existence.  Poets use words and phrases as evocations that slip past the dry analytical mind and reach us in a more musical place.  Perhaps that is why music is so ubiquitous in modern culture, pumped out from every electronic orifice we can muster.

But the power of language is often the power of a hammer more than a scalpel, and we are endlessly left to wonder if what we’ve meant to say is actually what the other person heard and understood.  Or, for that matter, whether what we wanted to say is really what we wanted to express, or whether a shriek or a howl or a roar of deep delight would have done a much better job.  For sometimes there really isn’t a story to tell.  There are not always words.  Sometimes there is only our animal body and mind wrapped up in the overwhelming sensual embrace of air, sun, water, sound, sensation.  Sometimes, there is only life.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Living the Dream” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

One shouldn’t watch a movie like “Inception” just before writing a sermon, especially when that sermon is to be about the persistence of myth and this writer’s ongoing realization that our reliance on narrative goes much deeper than he realized.  (“Inception” is a story based on the idea that we can share our dream state with others, and from this a tale of espionage and personal redemption follows.  It’s a really enjoyable movie, but to see it on a day when it’s hitting me that we humans are so deeply enmeshed with our stories that they may be the thing we cannot actually exist without may not have been the best choice).

I’m currently reading a book that carefully (and thoughtfully) examines the shared mythologies and ideas that we Americans share: the ideas through which we have formed (and maintain) our identity as citizens.  It is a “peeling of the onion” sort of book, well written, and mostly right-on as far as I can see (so far).  It is both exhilarating to feel my understanding expand even as it feeds a lingering sense of despair about the future of my own species.  For even with my active pursuit of reason and reality, I carry the imprint of my own culture and upbringing.  I am still an American, and a citizen of the same mythologies that motivate even my most irrational neighbors.

Odd thing, that.

What it makes me think of is the powerful role our youth has on our adult desires, tastes and attitudes.  It makes me realize that our social primate nature — beside being a much deeper force than I think most of us allow — is also deeply local, and that whatever it is that surrounds us in our formative years will forever represent what triggers our sense of comfort, beauty or safety (and, conversely, fear, disgust and discomfort).  And though (in some cases) horrific events drive people to find comfort in the completely foreign or new this is, I think, not the norm.

I’ve touched on this before in discussing the area of personal growth, where in my own case I have endeavored (as fearlessly as I’m able, anyway) to inquire into what it is that really makes me happy/excited/satisfied, and to not settle for the ideas of what I think should “trip my trigger”.  While on that “path” I have found (of late) an increasing sense that most of my “triggers” were formed long ago, and I am faced with an intriguing choice of whether to abandon what naturally (by early experience) makes me “happy”, or to conduct experiments on re-training myself in new means to the same ends.

Considered in the cold light of having only this one life in which to live (and excluding the pathologic or neurotic), which is the better choice?  This is the dilemma I’ve faced of late when confronted with a persistent happiness and sense of well being that has preceded the sought-after events that were to bring about those satisfactions.  Does one go ahead and be happy, or attempt to cultivate enough discontent to continue the pursuit of the idea (or ideal)?

There aren’t complete answers to these questions, just as there may not be completely satisfying answers to all of our other questions about ourselves or life in general.

I will insert here, however, my continued annoyance at the human tendency to see behind each un-answered question the lurking presence of a mystical presence, be it god, spirit, or devil.  Bullshit.  While our fascination with the unknown as home to our fantastical projections is great as entertainment (such as “Inception”), it is crap as actual living (in my humble opinion).  The raising of the metaphysical flag each time a scientist says “I don’t know what’s beyond this” does not do our species proud, and always (always) represents NOT a leap of faith into the unknown, but a retreat back into the darker ages of our emerging reason.

(I told you I shouldn’t be writing a sermon after that movie and the book I’m reading).

But about that book: each page I turn that further explains the roots of our shared ideology as Americans feeds my secret belief that I can understand it all, and take that knowledge and affect it all.  In the end, of course, even as I add arrows to my quiver with which to attack our nationalistic hubris, I am reminded of my own “galloping jesus complex”.  Alas, it seems to be a natural human attribute to see ourselves not only as the center of the world, but to assume a certain sense of omnipotence over that world, to the end that every street corner preacher thinks that he or she is going to “save the world” (even as they struggle to keep a dozen butts in the folding chairs at each storefront service).

But it’s not just the religious evangelist.  We actually buy recycled toilet paper whose label tells us that we are “saving the planet”, and we believe it.  I saw an ad for an electric car claiming that it was “carbon neutral” (as if the mined, refined and manufactured steel, plastic, glass, solvents, paints and rubber were all found ready-to-assemble by the damn roadside)!

Of course buying the recycled toilet paper or the electric car are rational choices (and could have an accumulative effect on extending our pleasurable lives here on Earth), but my point is that we are naturally prone to an exuberant sense of self-importance that is so pervasive I find I have no right to call it a sin.

As the book I’m reading (which I’ll review next week) seems to suggest, the very myths that get in the way of our rational discussion of issues that affect us may in fact also be the necessary glue that allows so many of us to live together in the complex societies that we know as nations.  On a more personal level, it may be my own inherent sense of human importance that moves me to do the many things I do (including this sermon).

Whether I want to admit it or not, I, too, want to save the world.  And whether I want to admit it or not, on some level, I still believe that I can.  The wonder of our evolved human brain is that we can step outside of ourselves and examine, critically, our myths and ideas.  And returning at last to the metaphor of the “dream” movie “Inception”: I guess that this is the difference between the people that exercise that critical ability and the ones that don’t: the one is looking for what the dream can reveal, the other won’t acknowledge that they’re dreaming at all.