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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What we do know is that people are good at identifying similarities and differences; at sorting things into collections, classes, or categories; at putting things in sequence according to a number of qualities; at discovering relationships of all sorts, including symmetry and complementarity; at associating or connecting different things or ideas.

People are particularly good at comparing one thing to another, then acting meaningfully according to the differences and similarities they find.

We put dishes away in the cupboard in the “right” place; use proper syntax as we have been taught by example; file documents by topic, author, date, length, or any number of other criteria; look words up in the dictionary; find articles in the encyclopedia; distinguish between luggage passing on an endless belt at the airport; grade papers good or bad, pass or fail, or by letters from A to F; buy clothing that fits; wear certain colors together and avoid other combinations; buy cars by distinct yet ineffable characteristics; purchase stock issued by one company but not another; construct taxonomies; justify whatever we do as reasonable; and so on endlessly, finding meaning in life by acting in particular ways at particular times in particular places—and not others.

Here I am spelling and putting words in sequence as if they weren’t words at all but thoughts and ideas flowing through my mind.

How do we do it? Find meaning in all these different ways of doing things? It comes with the territory of being human. With the culture we were born to, the community we live in today, the family we grew up in, the ways of the natural world we are extension of.

What I know today is that I somehow put one word after another in writing such paragraphs as these, judging by function, role, topic, emphasis, rhythm, and what I am trying to say on the basis of my personal experience. I don’t think so much about how I do it, I just do it. In a more-or-less orderly fashion.

The order is the thing, so that others will decipher letters put down in certain groups in a particular order and derive a sense of meaning from that pattern of serial parts grouped into wholes.

Throughout this blog, I find the metaphors of helmsman, wayfarer, and navigator to be particularly apt and meaningful in reference to my sense of my own mind. So I ascribe pathways and routes to my thoughts as if they were travelers within a network of interconnected highways and byways within my mind and brain.

Talk of maps, too, seems proper and germane. These images feel right to me as I try to find words to use in writing about my own mind. To me, thinking feels like navigating, like finding my way.

I visualize my consciousness as forming a certain terrain with uplands and lowlands I pass through as I write. Does my study of watersheds reflect or echo that terrain, or perhaps determine it? Which comes first, my outer or inner landscape?

Again, I don’t know. Is there a connection between them? I say, yes. Metaphors are products of mind and brain; they don’t come out of nowhere. They are useful in describing the indescribable in terms of the known and familiar, the abstract in terms of concrete examples.

I am dealing here with mysteries that have baffled people since the first human thought coursed through the first human mind. The basic idea is a flow of minor thoughts gathering into a river of thoughts, into grand ideas on a larger scale, built up from lesser streams, rivulets, and observations collected into an overall flow, route, path, or journey.

Do I know what I am talking about? No—but I certainly have a feel for the coursing of my mind, and the best I can do is try to put that feel into such words as I depend on in writing this blog about navigating, voyaging, journeying, wayfaring through my mind, the adventure of whatever lifetime I am allowed.

Roget started with meanings and developed clusters of words that he identified as being related to one another—by finding similarity to or difference from or gradation of—to a repertory of different meanings he recognized in his mind, which he numbered according to his system of classification from 1 to 1,000.

In so doing, he captured the order of his mind on paper. As I am trying to do in my last days by writing this blog on the terrain I discover in my own mind as if I were a wayfarer passing through it. I have sent an introspective probe into my mind, and this is the final report of my findings.

One prominent feature of his mind reflected in Roget’s magnum opus is the notion of duality (dichotomy, opposition, negation, polarization, bifurcation) and other such close couplings of related pairs of meanings and ideas. He found the sense of unity as composed of two distinct parts in relation to each other so compelling that pages of the Thesaurus are printed in two columns to allow such pairs to be juxtaposed in print to capture the effect they have on our minds.

In his Introduction, Roget writes: “There exist comparatively few words of a general character to which no correlative term, either of negation or of opposition, can be assigned.” Counting up the opposed pairs in my 1933 edition, I discover that 78.6 percent of the 1,000 headings are paired with an opposite member.

That is an astounding statistic; mine, not Roget’s. He merely captured it as a prominent feature of the way meanings are stored in his mind as polar couples. Is he just being contrary? No, he is simply echoing the dichotomous structure of his neural network in being home to two sorts of processes, those that activate, and those that block, squelch, or inhibit. Our minds are built of either/or decisions, go or no-go, yes or no, either-or, win or lose—maybe gets lost in the shuffle as an unsuitable or unworkable prospect that is simply not helpful in any real life situation where coming up with a proper response is crucial.

Uncertainty means hesitation means vulnerability. Speak up or listen, don’t stand there muttering to yourself. Either close the door or keep it open. Fish or cut bait is the issue, the only issue by which you will rise up or fall of your own weight.

The issue is always survival, not hedging, not vacillating, not beating around the bush. People are maybe’d to death every day because they can’t make a judgment by the time it comes due.