an alternative thought experiment by Nikola Danaylov
“We suffer not from the events in our lives but from our stories about them.” Epictetus
The most powerful stories are stories about things that don’t exist. Because our fictive language gave birth to legal fictions, social constructs and imagined realities. So much so that today imagined things are more powerful than real things. Trees, rivers, fish, animals and even the climate depend on our imaginary constructs for their future survival. There is no money, law, justice, inalienable human rights, religion, love, friendship, capitalism, corporations, nations or humanity outside of our common imagination. Never-the-less it is such fictitious entities that will decide the fate of the world, ourselves included.
The more fictitious a story is, the more powerful that story is, provided it has a large enough number of people embracing it. Because stories that spread don’t just win – they change the world. This is true of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as much as it is true of Communism, Capitalism, Humanism, Nationalism, Feminism, Brexit, MeToo or human rights. And while not everyone embraces those, the most popular story on our planet is money. Because almost everyone accepts and therefore believes in the story of money.
In human civilization, not only everything but also everyone is a story. And that is true at every level we can think of – individually, collectively or globally, because each of those levels requires a story. The same person can embrace many different stories that give her meaning, which also set the spectrum of what is and what is not possible for her. For example, someone can be a mother, daughter, vegetarian, lesbian, police officer, Muslim, black and American – all at once. And each of those stories provides such powerful meaning that the person may be willing to kill, live or die for it. Thus, our identities are little more than a hodge-podge of often contradictory stories. But if we change our story we change our identity. And if we change our identity we change our actions, and therefore we change our future.
Conversely, people who have not embraced or have lost their personal story feel lonely, unmotivated, lack meaning, feel depressed and may even commit suicide. While people who have discovered their “calling” have basically found a compelling story and decided to embrace it as their own. And when many people embrace the same story we can have large-scale cooperation among millions of humans, who are otherwise all strangers to each other. Thus, the power of our civilization is built on the power of stories – our belief in them, our ability to spread them and our ability to support and follow those stories, no matter the cost. Therefore, we ought to be very careful rewriting our story because if we destroy our story, we destroy our civilization:
“Human civilization is an intensely fragile construction. It is built on little more than belief: belief in the rightness of its values; belief in the strength of its system of law and order; belief in its currency; above all, perhaps, belief in its future.” [The Dark Mountain Manifesto page 5]