How Your Story Changes the World (Part 2)

The only realistic way to think about the world is to see it as an unfolding process that encompasses billions of smaller processes. Our minds don't like to work that way. We prefer snap judgments and simplistic labels. We defend our story and defend against those that disagree with it. The activist comedian Dick Gregory used to tell a scandalous joke in the civil right era: What does a Southerner call a black man who went to Harvard, got a Ph.D., and became a professor? Nigger. The punch line was as unacceptable four decades ago as now, but it touched on a painful truth. Even intelligent Southerners were guilty of applying a blanket, prejudicial label to all African-Americans. Today the label has gone away, but fixed assumptions remain intact (in many people's mind, the phrase "black male" brings a rush of fixed beliefs to mind, for example, about drugs, crime, unemployment, abandonment of the family, etc). Today the acceptable prejudices are against Arabs, oil sheiks, Shias, Sunnis, Muslims, Hezbollah, etc. If the right wing has its way, the word "immigrant" will soon join the list.

The left has been guilty of its own defense of stories that are pure illusion. "Communist" was a positive term during and long after the Stalin purges exposed unspeakable horrors in the Soviet Union, horrors that could be hidden behind a few convenient political biases in favor of socialism. At this moment, the tide of corruption and hypocrisy attached to the religious right seems obvious to an outside observer but remains hidden in the minds of people for whom "Christian" is a label that absolves all wrongdoing.

To think about the world realistically, we must substitute words that imply process and change, transformation and unfoldment. To do so requires a shift away from the methods of simplification that tempt us into comforting delusions.

1. Resist the urge to apply blanket labels.
2. Don't regard any situation as fixed and unchanging.
3. Take an interest in stories that don't apply to you personally, that have a larger context and meaning.
4. Don't lump yourself into a bigger story that needs no more thought on your part.
5. Stop defending yourself against stories you don't like.

All I've done is reverse the mental habits that cause real-life processes to freeze into fixed illusions. In practical terms, merely changing a story has enormous repercussions. Take a simple example. Sit a Palestinian and an Israeli down across a table. Have each one tell the story of his life to the other as he actually experiences it. Include all the significant life events that have occurred from childhood on, as well as one's hopes and aspirations. The inevitable result is that the two will become more human to each other, because beyond the grip of fixed labels and prejudices, almost everyone experiences the same unfolding processes. At the individual level personal stories follow common threads: birth, illness, success and failure, marriage, duties to others, love of family and friends. This experiment has been carried out many times, and in every instance two enemies find reasons to sympathize with one another.

Without buying a plane ticket to Baghdad or Tel Aviv, you can do the same thing as a thought experiment. Sit down at an imaginary table across from someone you fear or hate --- a member of Hezbollah, a southern racist, a suicide bomber. Instead of being appalled, take their part as your own. Tell their story from the inside as well as you can. The result will always be an opening of the mind, because every life is one of unfolding hopes, dreams, wishes, fears, and a personal vision. It's also true that every life is mired in story elements that are blindly fixed and prejudiced (with rare exceptions), because it is so difficult to remain completely awake. To be awake in a world of constant change is the ideal, and even if you can't be perfect, you can stop going to sleep on purpose. In what ways should this society wake up now? No question is more important, because if you can change your story to match reality, there is hope for changing the world.

(To be cont.)