:: The Promise of Philosophy Part III ::
(quoted from the Landmark Forum)
Suppose that you are asked to tell in five minutes the story of your life. After doing so, you are asked, “Who are you?” In response to this question you would no doubt refer to the content of the story you just told. You are likely to do so, as we all are, because we normally become so identified with both our collective and personal stories that we see reality and describe ourselves in terms of them. They become like water is to a fish, habitual paradigms that go unnoticed. We unconsciously identify with them, and they constitute who we think we are--our opinions, feelings, thoughts, judgements, justifications. Ordinarily, the building of stories and the forming of identity go hand in hand and go on and on without awareness.
Yet beyond the "you" that exists as a character in your story, there is you, the author or source of the story—the one who may live to revise the story endlessly. The Forum suggests, as a possibility and not as some unquestionable truth, that you consider that you are the latter, the teller or source of the story. And as such, you are distinct and thereby not simply reducible to the content of the story. Nor are you ever simply reducible to your thoughts. And so, in distinguishing story you also distinguish who you are -- as the one who speaks and can say how things are, no longer simply a character contained inside habitual ways of telling about yourself. You can now glimpse beyond the dramatic narratives with which you, without awareness, formerly identified. You begin to realize that you can stand outside your own slim story. Again, you now know something you didn't know that you didn't know.
When one is able to distinguish story as story, some obstacle or confusion to self-understanding is removed. This shift in perspective happens when Forum participants consider the hold their stories have on them and focus specifically on the difference between "what happened" in their lives and their interpretation of "what happened." As an example, consider this scenario: I stop by my friends' house on a Sunday morning while they're having breakfast. They don't invite me to join them. In an instant I decide they do not like me. I know they do not like me. What actually happened is that they didn't invite me to join them. My interpretation or story (that they don't like me) normally would become the reality I would begin to live in and from which I would relate to them in the future.
Forum participants are asked to ask themselves, “In the absence of my interpretation of what happened, what simply happened?” My friends continued to eat their breakfast in my presence. Instead of thinking they don't like me, I could consider a less personally defeating or more practical interpretation (they were in the midst of an argument) or a more creative one (they were on the verge of foreplay.) I could even consider a more Zen-like interpretation--my friends didn't invite me to join them because they didn't invite me to join them.
One might ask, though, what if your friends really don't like you and you, with your made-up, now rosy interpretations, are ignoring or denying reality? This is where life, the Forum and philosophy meet. For the issue is the nature of reality. In ordinary life we don't think about the nature of reality when someone snubs us. In the Forum that is precisely what is done. In essence, "snub" is appreciated as a human creation. As a creation then, it can be recreated. As one continues to distinguish story, the question inevitably arises, why live shackled by self-defeating, interpretations when one could generate more thoughtful and empowering--even exciting --ones?
We learn that some interpretations work better than others. Meanings that are laced with righteousness, resentment and resignation--regardless of supporting evidence-- can often be counter productive. They pull one out of living in the present. They attribute causality to others and to external situations. They limit freedom, squelch aliveness, and constrain social interactions. In Forum terms, there is no possibility. In the case of the breakfast interruptus, the friendship is either tainted or ends.
If, in a kitchen in my own neighborhood with my own friends I could, in a single morning, so easily lose them, what can we infer about a lifetime replete with interpretations from the past, invented at various times from the perspective of a child, a teenager, an adult. When "stories" rule the day, there is little freedom for anything else. Moreover, humans enrich their stories with significance and become attached to them. That attachment keeps us small, defended, and protective. However, there is more to this probe than just understanding the notion "story." The inquiry addresses the nature of human nature, with the ensuing, specific assertion that as humans, we are "meaning making machines." This is dramatically demonstrated in the Forum as participants chime in with fresh realizations from their own lives.
There are, of course, volumes of writing and speculation about the nature of human nature. Much of it focuses on the nature-nurture debate, while some of it argues that human nature is open-ended and infinitely adaptable. Discovering how bound we are by our stories and their significant meanings leads us to conclude that this meaning-making proclivity is an important element in the nature of human nature.
Creating new interpretations for the past as well as the present does not come easily for several reasons. First, one must recognize one's automatic, taken-for-granted interpretations for what they are, interpretations. When something feels "real," to recognize such “realities” as interpretations requires discipline. Second, we live inside defined cultures and subcultures that have any number of fixed and accepted paradigms that contribute to that culture's identity. They are the already-given, taken-for-granted assumptions about which there is much agreement. Then, we act as if we are at the mercy of our own cultures. In other words, humans create social realities and then literally forget that they created them (Berger and Luckman13 ). Further, we are not taught to practice the art of consciously, intentionally creating meanings that have possibility. And, once created, we have little practice maintaining them, especially in the face of widespread skepticism and resignation.