There’s a movie I like to watch with my family, around this time every year, called The Hogfather. Adapted from a book by the satirical English novelist Terry Pratchett, The Hogfather is a rollicking good send-up of Christmas – and an argument for believing in Santa Claus. At one point, Death (bear with me) and the story’s protagonist have this exchange:
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens goes much more deeply into this idea: That humans are extraordinary because of our imagination, and that we create fictions that not only influence our behavior but also often become real. Money, for example, is a thing that exists only because we all agree that it does. Similarly, human rights exist only so long as we continue to believe that they do, and to act on that belief. Using language that recalls Pratchett’s, Harari has said:
Most legal systems today in the world are based on a belief in human rights. But what are human rights? Human rights, just like God and heaven, are just a story that we’ve invented. They are not an objective reality; they are not some biological effect about homo sapiens. Take a human being, cut him open, look inside, you will find the heart, the kidneys, neurons, hormones, DNA, but you won’t find any rights. The only place you find rights are in the stories that we have invented and spread around over the last few centuries. They may be very positive stories, very good stories, but they’re still just fictional stories that we’ve invented.
Obviously, effects vary, and not every story creates truth. Money exists because we agree it exists. Human rights exist (and are honored to varying degrees) because we believe in them. I’ve written about how Pennsic, a medieval-themed festival in western Pennsylvania, is a reality created out of a “dream dreamed together.” On the other hand, no matter how convinced certain politicians or medieval Europeans have been that women can’t get pregnant as a result of rape, they have been wrong. But as Wesleyan professor Jennifer Tucker writes, “By the 13th century, in legal terms, women who were raped and became pregnant were presumed not to have been raped.” So, at certain points in European history, it has been the case that the rape survivor’s family and community would assume that, if she became pregnant, she had consented. It’s easy enough to imagine that this could lead to the survivor herself questioning her own memory of the event. Thus even this objectively false story can, to a great extent, create a world in its image.
Throughout human history, these stories have been telling us. While societies’ stories have been manipulated by people in power, it has also been a case of survival of the fittest. The stories (religions, philosophies, etc) that have informed cultures that have out-competed other cultures have been told and retold. Now we take the resulting stories – money, capitalism, duty, human rights – so deeply for granted that we don’t realize our part in telling them and in making them come to life. The problem being that these stories have been successful, but that doesn’t necessarily make them good.
Recently, I went to an talk on Abenaki permaculture, a discussion that touched on the tricky question of what “traditional” culture is, and whether it’s a reasonable or desirable goal to reconstruct “traditional” Abenaki culture, or whether it’s better to address Abenaki culture as a living, growing, and changing thing. One of the speakers, John Hunt, noted that “culture can be cultivated, and can be worked” in such a way that members of a culture can pass on a richer and healthier world to their children.
One of the basic ways in which permaculture, as I understand it, is different from conventional environmentalism is in the stories they tell. Environmentalism so often operates under the assumption that humans cause harm to the environment, and the best thing we can do is diminish our impact. In this view, it would probably be best for the rest of the world if humans didn’t exist at all. Permaculture, on the other hand, allows for the possibility that humans can interact with nature in ways that benefit both us and the ecosystem. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, discusses specific examples of this, including a study that found that sweetgrass actually thrives when harvested (responsibly), but can choke itself out when left alone. This supports the idea that it’s possible for humans to actively cultivate a healthy, abundant world that nurtures both our own well-being and that of other species.
It’s worth wondering if we might not also be able to cultivate a richer and healthier world by making conscious choices about the stories we tell, not only in the sense of the messages Hollywood, the media, and other forms of entertainment put out there, but also in the sense of our larger cultural story, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are on the local, national, and even global level. Our ability to communicate – and our global interdependence – is unprecedented. We have the tools to shift our narratives, (and many efforts are being made to do this). We have the incentives, since, as Harari notes, through our ability to believe in fictions, we have become so powerful that the survival of the objective world – the survival of rivers and mountains, of species (including our own), of individuals – is now dependent on the communal fictions that we live by. The perennial storyteller’s question is “What if?” and it’s worth asking: What if, instead of allowing the stories to continue to tell us, we humans were able to create or tap into a unified will to take choose the stories we tell?