Thursday, March 27, 2014


My wife and I recently had cause to stay in a motel for a week while visiting northern New Mexico. To keep up on what was happening in the world, we watched the news each morning. As it turned out, we watched CNN, although we rarely watch it at home. I was surprised to see all the coverage the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 was getting. Every day it was the leading story. There was no news to report, but there was plenty of speculation on what might have happened. Some were suggesting terrorists were behind it, others suggested the pilot(s) were responsible, a psychic suggested that some of the passengers were still alive, and some suggested God was responsible and He flew them to Heaven; something like the 'Left Behind' stories. During that whole time, there was really nothing new to report. It reminded me of Johathan Gottschall's "The Storytelling Animal," which I read recently, and about how we like to tell ourselves stories.

Humankind has an obsession of answers. We don't like not knowing. We would rather have an answer that might be wrong rather than not know.

It starts in childhood with the games children play. Their play involves telling themselves stories while playing house, driving truck (tricycle), or playing cops and robbers. Often their play is practice for when they become adults. In their play, they often puts themselves in the position of their parents.

As adults, daydreams are ways we tell ourselves stories. We daydream about our friends or those with whom we fall in love. If the relationship works out, our stories tend to be similar and compatible; if not, then we make up stories blaming the other person. Our stories always put ourselves in the best light.

At work we make up stories about our boss or co-workers. We create stories to explain why we didn't get the raise or the promotion and other stories to explain why a co-worker got the promotion we should have gotten. Our stories boost our self esteem.

Conspiracy theories are another form of storytelling. There are conspiracy theories for just about everything. Many of them involve large corporations or the government. If the government couldn't stop some disaster, such as 9/11, then the government must have been behind it. To some of us, the disaster is incomprehensible; it makes no sense. Because we need an answer, we make up one blaming our government. Then we look for others who agree with us, and the more people we find who agree, the more confident we are of the conspiracy. It doesn't matter if it is true as long as it gives us an explanation, an answer. Anyone who disagrees, of course, is part of the conspiracy.

Storytelling is part of our evolution. Early humans, for example, made up stories about why they became ill. Illness was interpreted as being the result of displeasing the gods or witchcraft; perhaps receiving the evil eye of another member of the tribe who didn't like you. Early man had a lot of stories about their gods. To them gods were everywhere and were responsible for many of their trials and triumphs. Everything had a god or spirit, good or bad - rivers, trees, mountains, volcanoes, people, etc. Even early man did not like not knowing. Perhaps it was the result of children asking questions, and the parents not liking having to say they didn't know; so they started making up stuff to satisfy the questions. Parents always had the answers. As adults, our gods have the answers.

Religion is a major source of answers; answers for all questions. There is no question for which religion doesn't not have an answer. Religion never says it doesn't know. Religions have answers that never need to be questioned; in fact, should not be questioned. That is perhaps the reason some people dislike science. Science will say when it doesn't know. If science doesn't know and religion does, people will turn to religion. They want answers, meaning and purpose in all things; none of this "we don't know." However, science will win in the end. As science shows more and more that stories in the bible are wrong and can not fit the facts as science uncovers them, religion will more and more find its position reduced and moved to the realm of mythology.

Think about the stories you tell yourself. Usually these stories start out being private and are not ready to be shared. In many ways these stories are like religion. We use them to make sense of our world. There are a lot of mysteries in life and a lot of things to which science does not yet have answers. We don't like not knowing so we speculate and come up with possible answers. Once we find an answer we like, we get comfortable with it and find ourselves defending it against other possible answers. It doesn't matter if these is no evidence to support your conclusion; for you it is true. When we are ready to share our answers with others, we may get upset if they do not agree with us. We may tell them they are not being open-minded about what you believe to be true.

Open-mindedness, however, is not being open to accepting something as true because it sounds good, or even possible. Open-mindedness is really about being open to considering what you believe to be true may in fact be false.

1. Jonathan Gottschall, 2012, The Storytelling Animal; How Stories Make Us Human, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 248 p.