Just to make myself clear, this is a story about a story, one of 7.25 billion stories we human beings tell ourselves and each other at every waking moment. With that caveat, I shall proceed.
At pandemic moments like this it’s important to remind ourselves about stories; it’s all too easy to get stuck in one story or another in the mistaken belief that its the only legitimate story. The latter happens frequently, sometimes at the behest of peer pressure, a longing for meaning in life, confusion and occasionally, plain ordinary ignorance. Whatever adherents there are to materialism, and that’s essentially all of us, we’re in for it. Life on the material plane can really stink, and although the material plane is but one realm of existence, it thoroughly dominates our world view.
Materialist objectification reduces complexity through the use of language and creates “thingdom.” Thingdom is the essence of storytelling; it allows us to refer to concepts as if they are material objects themselves. Thus when we say “smoking pipe” to someone a conceptual pipe begins to form in their imagination, the generalized image of a pipe, and various associations about pipes. With further verbal elaboration – style of pipe, historical period, materials used and so forth – the meaning and image become increasingly refined; the pipe-thing gets shared between people.
The stories we tell about thingdom are all over the lot; simple ones about magical spirits in water to complex ones about the mathematics of quantum mechanics. Some stories are religious, others scientific, scholarly, artful and entertaining. America is a thing, and our collective American story – our comforting homogeneous story – is about togetherness, equality and the “family of humankind,” this despite the powerful heterogeneous impulse at work among us that emphasizes privilege, difference and independence, not togetherness.
Where we are in America’s story is the section where the homogeneous “all coming together for the common good” part is beginning to fray. Keep in mind, a global story is being written on the spot, a vast, simultaneous, overlapping improvisation concocted by 7.5 billion people, with chance and the laws of nature adding their own content, like COVID-19 and swarms of locusts. When the “old-same-old” homogeneous story begins to get boring and fray, the heterogeneous elements – filled with independence, excitement, mystery and exuberance – fill the gaps that appear in the fabric of society. Charismatic, Machiavellian, magnetic leaders appear, attract devoted followers and sycophants and sway insecure crowds afraid of losing their economic and social standing by creating scapegoats to blame. Need I use names?
This is, unfortunately, the same old story of humanity, rewritten in the vernacular of our times. We all know how it ends, which incidentally is the same way it began; it doesn’t. Our materialism inclines us to seek resolution, have an accounting, determine meaning, but these are just more cooked-up stories we tell. The end of the story is the same as the beginning: “We Endure.”
The ancient Buddhist name for our world system is Saha. Saha translates as our word “endurance.” As materialists we find endurance difficult; we fear the loss of what happiness we have and worry about the pain we may suffer in the future. How could it be otherwise?
The history of humanity will not be told in words, but biologically and ecologically in geologic time. But hey, that’s another story.