More on the power of story lines
Americans believe it is “self evident” that all men are created equal. But oddly enough, Englishmen of the 16th and 17th centuries held precisely the opposite belief. They were quite sure that it is proper that all men are created unequal. Back in those days, one’s birth dictated one’s position in society and that was that.
So which is true? Both ideas have motivated people to tolerate the intolerable even to the point of giving their lives (as Ken Burke describes it). Put in leadership terms, both have compelled men to accept being followers (governed). But does that make either true? Quite the opposite. Both are fictions. Why? It is because they are “beyond disputation”. Or, as Jefferson so cleverly wrote “self-evident truths”. With all due respect to Jefferson, in both cases the actual truth of the proposition is meaningless compared to the effect it has if you believe it. Therefore, one might argue that they merely reflect different types of spiritual currency. And because they are so powerful (or if you prefer the word valuable), stories — great stories — emerge from them. We get motivated by a sense of purpose when we follow their logic and we create a new vocabulary as we go.
So consider this story from Madagascar
Many Malagasy believe the boundary between life and death is not altogether impermeable, that the spirits of their ancestors can somehow pass back and forth. To them, the famadihana is a time to convey the latest family news to the deceased and ask them for blessings and sagely guidance.
So, during famadihana, the Malagasy dig up the dead bodies of their ancestors, talk with them and even caress them. Here is the link to the full article.
It is ridiculous, isn’t it. That is why the author slipped in the word “somehow” in the sentence
(The Malagasy believe) their ancestors can somehow pass back and forth (between life and death) (emphasis added)
The word signals that it is permissible to be amused by the story without sharing the belief. But this leaves open the question, why do we think it is ridiculous? Because, of course, the story runs counter to our own belief in the power of science. Because the Malagasy cannot scientifically explain how the passing back and forth occurs, the idea of caressing dead bodies seems lugubrious to us. We are more concerned about possible infections from bacterial exchange.
Perhaps you can see already from this that science is one of our great fictions. It is a place where many of our great stories come from. So it should make us a bit uncomfortable to admit that scientists can neither prove nor disprove the Malagasy are wrong, just as science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. But we should admit that the power of science to motivate us — as with principles of equality and even justice itself — comes from its fictive power. The power flares up from our belief in what we think should be rather than from what is. Questions of what is or is not are details to be worked out over time as we act on our belief (in science or anything else). Put another way, these clumps of facts and factual investigation flesh out our story lines rather than create them. Thus we can feel empty and poor while walking through our palaces or rich beyond belief in our utter nakedness.
So, what are your fictions? Can you identify them? What beliefs are you acting on as you read this?
FOLLOW - One is often tempted to believe that our fictions justify all aspects of our culture and condemn other non-believing cultures to mediocrity or worse. This reflects, I think, a rather unfortunate type of arrogance. Unfortunate at least in part because it tends to blind us. But it may be surprising for Americans to consider, for example, that 17th century English aristocracy produced men of outstanding ability, judgment and freedom of mind. They were “brilliant amateurs”, as Sir Kenneth Clark calls them, of a type that is not found in a culture dominated by the belief that all men are created equal. Interesting.
FOLLOW - Science offers us a rather peculiar type of fiction because stripped to the essentials, it is just a method of measuring things. We have become so confident in the method (giving it that grandiose title “scientific method“) that we tend to forget that other fictions motivate us to measure. And so, one can argue (and many do) that modern society is a bit lost in the woods of its own invention.
FOLLOW - Putting leadership into a story telling framework, we are all both leaders and followers of a sort and we should be aware of what this means. We are not leaders all the time. Nor can we credibly claim to be just blind followers. Indeed, we might do well to be wary of people who make that claim. The greatest leaders are following great stories and re-telling them to motivate group action. We follow in order to become a part of the story. And the more and better stories that we are thinking of and talking about, the better we can help each other participate in what life has to offer us. Call it engagement with each other. I cannot think of a better fiction that justifies my obsession with leadership and followership.
FOLLOW - Chris Guillebeau has a new book out called” “The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World”. Here is a link to the Amazon site. Belongs in the fiction section, I suppose. What do you think? If you have any doubt, consider this review from the Amazon page
The Art of Non-Conformity is like a lightning bolt to the head. Read it and your brain will spark and sizzle.”
- Neil Pasricha, author of The Book of Awesome
That is what precisely great fictions accomplish.