Jan/Feb 2007 Salon

What I know for sure

by Paul Sampson

Artwork by Ira Joel Haber

Most of our education, beyond the Three-R level and well into advanced study, involves being told what to believe about complicated things. We are taught the outlines and some of the particulars of what our culture believes to be true.

Some of these things pretty much straddle all the cultures we're likely to encounter. There isn't (as far as I know) such a thing as Christian Algebra, or a schism between Orthodox and Reform Chemistry. No school that I know of requires, nor offers an elective in, nor forbids the study of, Islamic Aerodynamics. There is pretty good agreement among the warring sects as to the content of such courses.

Similarly, there is no difference between Capitalist and Socialist botany, nor can anyone tell the difference between Irish and English accounting.

Beyond that, it's not always so clear cut. We like to pretend that it is, though. One of the all-time best-sellers is All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. The author, a Unitarian minister, managed to squeeze a book out of a collection of a dozen and a half happy-talk bromides that show how we can all agree on everything that matters. The book came out 20 years ago and has never been out of print and never will be. (And that's okay! Really! Go buy a copy right now! And share it with somebody!)

Now, before I get savaged as a grouch and a naysayer, I wish to be numbered with the legions of people who agree with Rev. Fulghum's general philosophy. I, too, think it's important to share, not to hit people, to look, and above all, to flush. I, too, applaud the taking of naps, and espouse a policy of Milk and Cookies For All.

It's just that there's more to the story. Or rather, there's more than one story. And that brings me to my real starting point, which is no less than a definition of human nature. Ready? Here goes:

We are the story-telling animal. Yes, we are the tool-making animal, but it turns out that other creatures can do that too. We're the reasoning animal, but other creatures solve problems too. Art-making? Look up the bowerbirds. War-making? Chimps and ants do organized violence against their own kind. Rule-making animal? Various primates seem to have codes of behavior (and to violate them at times, and punish offenders). Language-using animal? Listen to birds, wolves, your own dog.

But as far as we know, other animals don't use language to tell stories. Some of them clearly and obviously teach their offspring to do the tasks they need to learn, but they teach by example, not by language. (And of course I could be wrong. But that's the story I learned, and for now, I'm sticking to it.)

If you're at all willing to stretch a rhetorical point or two, other animals may have cultures, and transmit the elements of their culture to offspring or even to newly encountered members of their species. But we are the undisputed champions at this trait, and I am willing to say that Man (Capital M to designate the species, not the gender) is the culture-transmitting animal, the historian of our own kind, the story-telling animal.

So? So it ought to work better than it does. We have this incredible tool, language, and we ought to be able to keep our story straight. But we don't. For one thing, we don't have just one story. Every little bunch of us has its own tale. And even the most compact cliques have splinter groups, and each has its own story.

What I learned in school was chiefly this: smart people can't agree on many important things. In fact, the smarter they are, the less likely they are to agree. (And the corollary works, too: the stupider they are, the less disagreement.)

At some point in the course of growing up, I noticed that all the grownups believed different things about very important matters. Or rather, there were many groups of grownups, all believing different things. These things contradicted one another. It occurred to me that they couldn't all be right. (More on this below.) But it took a long time for the rest of this proposition to dawn on me. They could all be wrong.

Many years later, I learned a way of thinking about all this that allowed me to say, without wrenching anything out of shape, that they could all be right. But the idea that all the heavy thinkers—including the ones I liked the best—could be wrong was the beginning of wisdom.

What impressed me was this: Here we had all these important people, professors and doctors, senators and priests, scientists and (above all) philosophers, and among them they harbored every shade of any opinion you'd care to offer, on every subject you could imagine. Everyone agreed that these were the experts (they certainly agreed that they themselves were the experts, and they got away with saying so).

In my youth, I had no trouble telling which of these experts to believe. I was a Catholic. As a member of the One True Church, I didn't have to worry about which leader to follow. I didn't even have to worry about which questions to ask. I developed (or rather was given) strong opinions on many things that it may not have occurred to others to wonder about, like what became of the earthly remains of the Mother of Jesus ("assumed" into Heaven; it wasn't altogether clear what that meant, but there was no question that it happened. The Pope declared that it did, and so it was). We celebrated this happy event on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption. I assume they still do. It is, in fact, a Holy Day of Obligation, on which Catholics must attend Mass. The benighted heathens of other or no faiths didn't have any opinion at all on such matters, I suppose.

At some stage in my slow crawl through adolescence, it dawned on me that this stuff was rubbish. Nobody ought to bother himself about this sort of question. Yet many people did, and these were apparently intelligent people who were not overtly crazy. And very few of these people agreed with one another. Mark Twain said that Man "is the only animal that has the True Religion—several of them." His understatement is breathtaking.

And so it was with all the big questions of ethics and economics and politics and history and even science. As I groped my way through a couple of universities and many years of postgraduate reading, I saw a pattern taking shape. In every field of knowledge, there was lively debate (to put it politely), wild accusations of fraud and stupidity and corruption (to put it accurately) among the experts. This was called The Marketplace of Ideas, and out of the conflicts we were supposed to expect that useful truths would come.

Well, maybe they did and I missed them, or maybe they didn't but soon will, or maybe there aren't any. After all, it's entirely possible that all the explanations are wrong.

But, as I hinted earlier, maybe there's a sense in which all the explanations are right.

Suppose that we call each of the explanations, each doctrine, each religion or school of history or economics, a story. I think it's pretty commonly held that stories can be useful illustrations of how Life works.

A story might illustrate how stories might work:

After the blind men encountered the elephant, they stopped at an inn that catered to blind men to argue about what they had felt: rope, spear, fan, wall, tree, snake. A wiser blind man, who hadn't actually felt any elephants, and so had no prejudices, suggested that perhaps each was "right," but that they had in fact encountered several elephants: one like a rope, another like a spear, a fan, a wall, a tree, or a snake, respectively.

This seemed an attractive solution, and soon a school of Elephantism arose that held that, although there are indeed Elephants, they are creatures that may take many forms.

Later, a heretical sect sprang up that spoke of the Theory of the Unified Elephant. According to the devotees of this cult, the Elephant has but one form, of which each person perceives only certain aspects. Only by accepting all the fragmentary reports as equally true, and then imagining these fragments as assembled into one transcendent Elephant, can we begin to apprehend the Elephant as he really is.

Naturally, all good people united in stoning these irreverent theorists. Being blind, they hit very few of their targets, but they put a lot of stones in the air, and they succeeded in driving the infidels away.

So: were all those elephant experts wrong? Yes. But were they all right as well? Sure, in the sense that each had a true story about the elephant, based on his own experience. In the same way, each believer in a religion has his own experience of faith, his own (to him) convincing reasons to believe some great overarching Explanation of Everything. (Of course, there is a pretty dramatic difference in scale here; religious stories explain not merely the shape of elephants, but all the elements of the collective delusion that we call a Culture or, even more grandly, a Civilization.)

Now we are in the realm of Myth. A myth is a story, but one that goes beyond merely giving information or even pointing to a moral. A myth provides the structure of the collective life of a people. Whether found in holy books or in the campfire tales of tribal elders, these stories tell us much more than "what happened." They tell us who we are.

But there are such a lot of them! I have on my desk a useful book called A Dictionary of Creation Myths by David and Margaret Leeming (Oxford University Press, 1994). It's a big trade paperback, 330 pages long, and it gives thumbnail versions of the creation stories of peoples ranging alphabetically from Acoma to Zuni. Yes, the Christian and Hebrew stories are in there, right along with Boshongo and Buddhist and Darwinian and Dogon and Muslim and Muyscan and Zoroastrian and Zulu, among all the others, including the Big Bang. Well, probably not all, but enough to leave you convinced that everybody has an opinion on Where We Came From. From these stories, of course, spring others, about What We Ought To Do Now That We're Here.

And they are all True, in that they all give symbolic shape to the inescapable conviction that there really is Something outside ourselves, Something that we are not imagining, Something that we want explained. Every one of these stories makes narrative sense to the people telling and hearing it. As the poem says,

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right

(The rest of the poem is a wretched little earworm by Rudyard Kipling, but those lines are just what I need, so I set my superior taste aside.)

If only we could all allow other people to have their stories, as we have ours. But we don't. I don't care when you read this, but I will bet that if you turn on a news source (even if, by the time you read this, it is some sort of internal meta-telefeely that projects directly into your neurons), there will be at least one report of people killing one another because they do not agree on which account of Creation is True.

Punishing conflicts grow from True Stories. The last century has seen myth after myth, each of them someone's version of the truth—British, German, even Belgian! Empires, Nazism, Communism—mounted on the stage of political action. We are still sluicing the blood from the floors. Now we are enacting the fever dreams of our own Neoconservatives. They too have a story that they're sticking to. Meanwhile, Islamists believe they are appointed to restore the Caliphate. Another True Story.

Even the craziest of these stories might be survivable if seen as myth. None of these mythic tales, not even religion, would murder us, if we saw them as myths, as symbolic expressions of our identities and our needs and aspirations. But we take them literally, and as my namesake saint noted, "...the letter killeth."

Or so I believe. In my story, we are the story-telling animal. We are also the story-believing animal. Alas, nearly all of us believe only our own story. And that makes all our stories sadder than they ought to be.


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