Constructing the self story

I was talking to a friend last night who passed along an interesting observation to me: that people actively seek out evidence to support their worldviews. I’ve always believed that our perceptions color our view of the world in a passive way; that we see what we expect to see. Where one person sees the wonders of science and evolution, another sees evidence of the Grand Design of the Creator. But I hadn’t ever really considered it something that people did actively. It’s interesting because it begs the question of how one can adjust one’s worldview to change one’s life in a desired fashion. What does it even mean to try to support one’s worldview?

In a totally separate conversation over AIM today, a friend and I were talking about the new Mel Gibson Passion movie, and he commented: “i’m really perplexed as to why people adamantly believe this is historically accurate”. My off-the-cuff response was: “these are people who’ve never taken a real liberal arts class in their life, so they don’t understand how history is constructed. history isn’t a recitation of facts, it’s a viewpoint – a construction of a narrative.” I thought it was a pretty clever thing to say at the time, but that’s it.

I later realized that these two separate quotes are conceptually linked. And the link is the idea of a self story, a narrative that we tell about ourselves. This idea of the self story is a large part of Orson Scott Card’s work, and I have been attracted to it for many years. Card’s view is that all of us have a vision of ourselves, one that we strive to support. We pick and choose pieces of our life to support that vision. An inescapable continuation of this idea is that nobody is evil in their own minds; they have constructed a self story where their actions make sense, no matter how inexplicable they are to the rest of the world (I allude to this in my rant about extremism). I’ve played with this idea in other forms before, but I want to return to it again in this forum and explore it a bit more.

Let’s start with the history quote. There’s a common saying that “History is written by the winners.” This acknowledges that there is no such thing as an objective history. A recitation of facts is not history, despite the lesson plans of our middle school teachers. A historian generally has a theory in mind, a narrative that they are trying to support, and they go looking for evidence for that theory. This was something I didn’t quite understand about history when I mused about this before, although I did apply the idea to literary criticism. But another quote about history also illustrates the point I’m trying to make: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana was not saying that we would literally relive the past, of course. He was pointing out that by learning from the stories that passed before, we can learn how to live better in the future.

It all comes back to stories. This is Card’s view of the world – he believes that what separates us as humans from animals is our ability to tell stories, and our ability to incorporate stories and myths into ourselves and make them part of our self story. Put that way, it sounds a bit detached, but let’s use the example of myths of America. One such myth is that promulgated by the NRA, that being an American is about being able to bear arms against our oppressors. Another is the nineteenth century doctrine of Manifest Destiny. People believe in these myths, take them to heart, and use them to define what it means to be an American. This is why one of the most powerful epithets that can be used in a debate is to be un-American, with the added confusion that the term means many different things, depending on which set of myths about America one subscribes to.

Getting back to the original discussion, what does it mean to actively seek out evidence to support one’s worldview? It means living our life in such a way as to support our self story, our ongoing narrative of who we are. If we think of ourselves as socially awkward, we will throw ourselves at difficult social situations, fail and then justify the failure by saying that it’s just who we are. If we think of ourselves as having bad luck, we will find a way to interpret events in such a way as to support that. My friend even posited cases like having a belief that all cars fall apart, and then driving one’s car into the ground to prove it. The point I’m trying to make is that we live our lives in accordance with our self-constructed narrative.

How do you change that narrative? If it’s self-constructed, why is it so hard to change one’s outlook? Why shouldn’t I be able to say “Poof! I’m more sociable!” I think that this can be attributed to lack of knowledge, habit and fear. Lack of knowledge, in that it’s hard to realize that one can take better control of one’s life. Card’s work also expresses this idea; in Speaker for the Dead, a character says “We [humans] question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question.” If you have always assumed that you are a certain way, you never think to question it. Habit, because once you get used to doing things a certain way, it’s hard to change. You settle into a routine. And fear. Fear is the toughest one. What we’re talking about here is altering the self story. This strikes at the very core of who we are. We are our self story. So changing that means changing who we are at a fundamental level. This is justifiably scary – who are we if we’re not ourselves?

So it’s hard. I think there’s hope of doing it. But reconstructing one’s narrative in such a way as to make the change one wants without affecting how it integrates into the rest of one’s worldview is tricky to say the least. But taking control of one’s life can be empowering. Many works of fiction that I like explore this idea, with a notable one being V for Vendetta. Lois McMaster Bujold has a great quote along these lines from Countess Vorkosigan – something like (terribly paraphrased because I can’t find the quote right now) “If one accepts the consequences of one’s actions, then the corollary is if one desires some consequences, one better start taking action in such a way as to make those consequences happen.”

Anyway. This has degenerated into even less coherence than usual. I’ll pick up another time with a narrative-centric viewpoint of the world, applying the idea of narrative construction to everything from marketing to ourselves to government.