496. Storylines

April 29, 2015

In this last post to my blog on consciousness, I want to clinch my argument that loops of engagement are evolution’s gift to us all by providing evidence of the many ways we engage our surroundings every day of our lives.

First of all, let me remind you that humans are a species of storytellers. For most of our history, we have survived by telling stories around places of fire that offered us comfort and warmth. Stories have beginnings, middles, and endings. From the opening “Once upon a time,” to the concluding “lived happily ever after,” one thing leads to another by a particular order of events. This happens, then this, then this, making up the succession of engagements in the time and place of particular characters of which a story is told.

We all want to hear what happened to the little girl when she walked into the woods to visit her grandmother. Or to the brother and sister when invited into her home in the forest by an old woman. We are driven to sit still and listen, even if we’ve heard the tale many times. We become captivated by the unfolding of events according to the plots we are all familiar with. Once the story is told, we can’t wait to hear it again. To live it again. To experience the drama again. To feel the tension in our own bodies as if it were our own story being told.

Stories are narrations of specific engagements we can identify with. It makes little difference if they are fact or fiction or documented history. What they offer is to put us imaginatively in someone else’s shoes so we can share what life feels like to be them on particular occasions. That is powerful magic.

We gauge that magical effect by how closely it follows our expectations. We don’t like it if the happy ending turns sad. Or the tragic ending turns sickeningly sweet. Details of character and form and plot are what we remember because they govern how we feel at different times during the narration.

That is, we listen to stories to see how they measure up against our own life engagements. Do they expand or diminish our horizons? Do they hook us or turn us off? Shaggy dog stories lead us on and on and on, leaving us stranded right where we were at the beginning, making a mockery of our expectations, as in a bad joke.

Sheer violence draws some crowds and offends others. The news is made up of episodes of rape followed by shark attacks by beheadings by school collapses by tornadoes by typhoons by earthquakes by forest fires by nuclear disasters by collisions by busloads of schoolchildren tumbling end-over-end into ravines. We are surrounded by the shock and awe of chaos every day of our lives. Which makes us glad for the humdrum lives we actually lead—until disaster strikes in our midst.

Whether real or fanciful, our engagements are writ large in films, operas, ballets, plays, sporting events, songs, and every other aspect of our culture. What is a musical score but the latent storyline of audience engagement? What are songs, lyrics, poems, paintings, travelogues, biographies, adventures, novels, recipes, jokes, anecdotes, videos, picture puzzles—what are any of these media of intense concentration but opportunities for meaningful engagement?

What are everyday conversations around the watercooler at work or table at Starbucks but occasions for human engagement? What is syntax but the turning of a felt situation into a sequence of words that others can experience in a meaningful way?

Think of the milestones of life: learning to walk, talk, dress yourself, count, spell, write. These are the essential engagements of civilized human life. Think of getting engaged, getting married, building a house, having a baby, getting a job, getting a better job, having another baby, putting on a new roof, getting a divorce, traveling to Maine or Alaska or Italy or Cambodia or Kenya or Tierra del Fuego—all major episodes of engagement that connect our minds to our surroundings in specific ways according to certain narratives, schedules, and itineraries.

Plots and stories: that’s what life is made of. Birth to death, beginning to end, experiences strung together on the storylines by which our lives are told. That’s what we are to one another, tellers of stories, enactors of stories, recallers of stories, garblers of stories, forgetters of stories.

We are companions in storytelling, believing, doing, leading our lives. Our commonalities of engagement bind us together; our differences split us apart. Either way, our stories-narratives-engagements make us human. To be a blank slate is to be sub-human, a kind of zombie. Even animals engage. We know that by watching their eyes, smiles, tails, the hairs on the back of their necks. Some in greater detail than others, more consciously than others.

Even trees engage sunlight, rain, snow, wind, and predators, so engage their habitats and survive differentially. Are they conscious? I would say in their own way. In the way of life on Earth in its local precinct of the larger whole that supplies the matter and energy by which Earthlings can be said to live by bridging the gap between inside and outside.

My blog is devoted to the inside picture of our human engagements with one another and the outside worlds we share in common. Perception, memory, comparison, judgment, goals, actions—all play their parts in telling the story of consciousness that makes us possible.

Our stories tell who we are in doing, going, being, seeing, playing, writing, singing, dancing, shopping, driving, knitting—engaging—as we do by living the lives that we do.

To me, consciousness is the story that begins and underlies all other stories. It is the story of all stories. If we ignore it, can we claim to be alive on that most fundamental of all levels?

I have no doubt that the pains I have taken in these posts to tell my version of the story of consciousness have been—if uninvited—necessary for me to live as myself. By telling it, I am paying my dues to the planet that has given me birth, and shared its energies and resources so that I could be conscious in this particular day and age.

As I see it, I owe the Earth nothing less than this account of my mental endeavors. For me, finishing that work is, indeed, a happy ending. The best I could have hoped for because, with the recent deaths of my two brothers reminding me of the imminence of my own, I haven’t been sure I could do it until now.

As I wrote in my post 394 on New Year’s Day, 2015, “Happiness is being the person you most want to be, doing the things you most want to do.” I followed that with “Happy New Year, everybody!”

Now, 102 posts later, I say: May your own story reach the ending you have strived for all these years.

Because that (your own) ending may be in doubt, I feel an unplanned afterword coming on. I refer you to my next post.

Thanks for engaging my words and ideas to the extent you have been consciously interested.

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We acquire our genetic parents at conception, but achieve our dreaming and waking minds in the womb as distinct from those of our parents. We are each born to our most rudimentary families, such as they are, with a mind formed by a particular course of events in utero. We bring that mind with us at birth as our basic tool for engaging the hereafter as it gradually unfolds in our particular case. That unfolding may strengthen or weaken the mental pathways we are born with.

The rest is history as told in our expanding autobiography. Though there may be general milestones, there are no laws of child development. Laws are cultural, not natural, artifacts. Collectively and individually, each family is an experiment containing a mix of experiments that proceeds by trial and error as proven by developing relationships among grandparents, parents, selves, children, and grandchildren.

That haphazard process reflects evolution’s wisdom in not attempting to anticipate the conditions we will be born into, so not committing us in advance to ways of engagement which might prove ineffective or even harmful.

In truth, subjective judgment is evolution’s gift to us all in being formed in response to the specific situations we actually confront in family life, not some archaic set of Paleolithic challenges we are supposedly destined to face.

Whether nurtured by our families or not, the judgments that we ourselves make as based on our unique life experience is the crowning glory of evolutionary achievement. Evolution does not lay down the law, it allows for and opens us to the possibilities we might actually meet on our own.

I used to believe that matter obeyed Newton’s laws of motion, or that electrons heeded Ohm’s law. But the universe is not driven by obedience. In every case, the specific conditions in each situation determine the outcome of what happens next. Situations flow from one state of being into the next because conditions are right for that to happen, not by decree, but because each situation spontaneously governs itself in inventing itself on the spot in response to its state at each instant.

There is no such thing as an overall universe governed by laws; there is only the resulting configuration of matter continuously being what it must be right where it is in response to the set of conditions currently affecting its state of being.

Just as the universe is in a continual state of readjustment, so are we, its progeny. Like the Higgs boson, each family is the next state of matter that arises from the conditions that lead up to it. It appears as it does, not in response to a causative or descriptive law of physics it has never heard of, but because, under the circumstances, it balances itself in the moment as best it can.

Just as each point in the universe does as it does on its own in its unique situation, each family member is on her own in the bosom of her family. She is as she does in response to the conditions comprising her situation at each instant of her experience. She can’t help it. She is as she does from her point of view in the context she is in, which sets up a new situation, leading to the next resolution, leading on to the one after that. That’s the process we call development, which includes each individual person and the context of forces in which he or she occurs.

Our lives end up being the summation of each instant of growth as it occurs in the context of all that has happened before, both within and around us. That’s us: Works in progress. Getting it right or wrong by doing it right or wrong in an endless series of ever-changing situations.

As I said, development is not a matter of law. That’s why there are no universal guidebooks to child development. Lives are nothing more nor less than what happens in the situations leading up to conception, then as those situations further evolve after that until we wear out.

Our job as children is to deal with what comes our way the best we can, which we all manage to do more-or-less well. Put that way, it doesn’t sound very romantic. But as I keep saying, we are wayfarers by nature, and blaze our own trails. In contrast, imagine living life as a puppet on strings with a set storyline and guaranteed ending. Which would you choose, your own journey, or that as scripted by someone else?