I imagine that the first stories ever spoken were more like descriptions of events told around a communal campfire. Some of these events would have been historical. Ancient events would have become myth. There was no intentional fiction. Facts would have been so sparse that the storyteller would have had to surmise, theorise, to bridge the gaps of the unknown that lay between their bits of fragmented knowledge. Gods and spirits were invented to explain the inexplicable.
We don’t need that kind of storytelling anymore. We understand how the world works and why things happen. In fact we have got so good at understanding the world that we are able to control almost all aspects of it. Most of what happens to us during the day, the month, the year is planned, implemented and managed by us.
The unknown still exists and has moved into our heads. For most of the time, our minds are out of our control. Moods appear, unexpected emotions, anger, jealousy, fear… Few of us control our minds as efficiently as we control the world.
I imagine we continue to tell and share stories, now mainly in the form of novels, to try to understand what goes on in our heads, in the same way stories were once told to try to understand what goes on in the world? If we controlled our minds as efficiently as we control the world, would we continue to read stories of how people struggle with personal issues and fight their inner demons? By reading fiction, are we not just trying to understand ourselves?
Entertainment is a strange thing. We like to think it means something like, purposeful and enjoyable distraction. But much of what passes for entertainment is hardly enjoyable. Horror, violence and tragedy fill the pages of our books and blast out of our screens. It sounds to me like we are looking for more than just enjoyment. Do we not create these scenarios to try to understand how our minds work, how humans manage their emotions and fears in strange and unexpected situations? Are we not still sitting around a campfire sharing stories to try to understand who we are?
If so, what will we do when we are fully enlightened – when we understand our minds as well as we understand the world? Will we stop reading fiction and turn only to fact? If we have no questions left to ask about ourselves, will we turn our knowledge towards making the world a better place? If stories fill the gaps between our fragmented knowledge, we surely wont need them when there are no longer any gaps.
Until then we must continue to tell stories to bridge the unknown.
There are two areas important to human understanding, which, it seems to me, have remained clouded in mystery despite being covered by storytellers of all eras. They are beauty and love. Maybe the reason we know little about them – they remain the central focus of many of our stories – is because we imagine they are human inventions, or the inventions of our gods, which is the same thing. Beauty and love, it seems to me, are part of the fabric of reality, neither belonging to the realm of the gods, or to the realm of us humans.
All this begs the question: do we really want to know ourselves? Are we happy to live in our storied minds? Maybe narrative is our path to salvation just as Samsara is the Buddhist path to enlightenment. Maybe some people are happy to remain on the path never moving beyond. Maybe salvation/enlightenment is the next stage in our evolution and we’re missing it.