Your Life Isn’t a Story

In 1944 a group of psychologists made an animation consisting of geometric shapes and showed it to people who overwhelmingly (and consistently, with corroboration) imbued it with all kinds of story-telling elements (protagonists and antagonists, plot, drama, suspense, etc.). You can watch the animation for yourself—and read an article about the study—here. Best line from the article: “There is no better illustration of the pitfalls of a good story than economics.”

Most people probably think of their own lives as stories (we even have “chapters”), perhaps in part because even the worst stories have coherence, while even the best stories have simplicity. Even defenders of religious texts point out that their great asset resides in their didactic and compelling stories. How else could a deity communicate?

I don’t think there’s much danger in assigning meaning to events in one’s life by fitting them into a narrative. In fact, absent an external, universal “truth,” making meaning for one’s self while on this one, primary, material earth is not only admirable but necessary. (Note that just because it’s necessary doesn’t exactly make it easy.) But the danger begins once someone places others in their story, and is then somehow able to make that story come true. This yarn-weaving writ large is how all grand political, industrial, and economic projects take shape—and all such projects demand the belief that at some level a human life (or millions of them) is expendable for the sake of the fulfillment of the story. Never mind non-human life or habitat, which is exchanged for even the basest, most insidious stories, in the tradition of Gilgamesh (the foundational text of agriculture/industry-based cultures) and including such hits as Manifest Destiny and the American Dream.

All the evidence I’ve seen and read suggests that our lives are not stories, and that time and free will are illusions anyway, so plot and action are kind of disqualified from the outset. (I would say “I’d love to be proven wrong on this,” but honestly it does not bother me.) That still leaves suspense, irony, and characters though, which is more than enough for a good scene or two.


“There are some problems that don’t have non-radical solutions.”  —or— “There is no non-radical outcome to climate change.”  – Naomi Klein, from her talk last night at the LBJ at The University of Texas, an update on a previous quote from Bob Jensen: “Some problems don’t have solutions.”

Our Duty to Shop

It’s odd that people who are uber-patriotic are also often the same people who are vocal critics of the commercialization/secularization of Christmas. When people say the US is the “greatest country in the world,” surely they are including the economic aspect of that claim along with the ostensible “freedoms” we “enjoy.” The US can’t be a global economic superpower if we don’t shop shop shop; that’s what a capitalist economy is, after all. When President Bush said after September 11th that we should all go shopping, a statement for which he was roundly criticized because to many it seemed crass in the context of other options (such as, let’s all come together and heal in the face of a traumatic event), he was actually being logical within the framework of capitalism. The most patriotic thing one could do in a capitalist State is to start one’s Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving night—or day; why wait?—and to keep maxing out those credit cards all the way up until the Epiphany.