The stories that guide us

“…Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry—that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast flowing tears of the child and the man—Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St. Crispin’s Day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon—these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper.”


“I do not know what young Catholics today actually learn, but my brief experience with teenage preparation for Confirmation suggests that it is nothing much beyond vague sentimentalities about God’s love…. Hooper would be barely sensible to the shipwrecks of Paul, the exile of Athanasius, the trial of Formosus, the conversion of Augustine, and the death of Joan of Arc. Annoyance and sentimentality are the only passions left to the Hoopers of the world. Greatness is quite literally unimaginable to them, whether that greatness be heavenly or hellish; Paradise is bland and the Inferno desolate. Heroism and hedonism alike hold no appeal for Hooper.”

— Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

We humans are a talking breed. Language and story are inextricably mixed, and it seems clear that the stories we tell eachother around the campfire—the narratives of our lives and imagination—are what define us as moral and ethical beings.

Life provides us with various types of existing narratives. There are the stories of our childhood, the teachings of religion, the tales of heroes. We learn from these what it is to be good, true, courageous, loyal, stalwart, cunning, indomitable, kind. We hear how to rise from defeat, how to withstand trial, how to protect others, and how to sacrifice ourselves when all else fails.

And most of all, we learn how to judge behavior—our own and everyone else’s. We explore what it is to be a coward, to be the object of shame. We internalize these judgments, and that helps keep us from shaming ourselves and makes us reliable and trustworthy members of our communities. As the stories tell us, there are always people who fail to live up to these standards, as we do ourselves from time to time, but at least there is a general consensus about what we’re aiming at, or trying to.

But that was then.

We have been meddling unthinkingly with the stories we tell ourselves for a couple of generations now. And we’ve been reaping the whirlwind, ever since WWII.

It began in the modern era with the receding of traditional religions. Whether or not you can believe in a God (a judgment of the intellect), the stories of traditional religions were in general alignment with older human stories. At its foundation, Western civilization itself is a blend of pagan and Semitic narratives about what makes a man good and the duties men owe to eachother.

The status of religion in civil society was a victim of both the cult of “cool” and the well-meaning desire to live and let live with one’s neighborly unbelievers. That need not have been fatal—after all, the narratives of Christianity, for example, are widely echoed in literature—but other more serious trends came along.

Firstly, the common egalitarianism of American society has given way to a narrow seeking of status and justification from a secular elite class. Instead of learning the broad stream of stories about what gives life meaning and making independent judgments based on that, people have turned to elites for approval, as if they were the new priests of a new religion. They proudly embrace condescending status markers of “see, I believe what all good people believe”, which carries the implication “If you believe differently, you are bad people”. This loss of empathy with your neighbors is a form of religious shunning.

Healthy religions would have you try to convert the non-believer by engaging in a dialogue which requires a minimal level of empathy for his position. If that doesn’t work, well, life is long and perhaps your neighbor will change. Meanwhile, common courtesy requires you to treat him as a neighbor with whom you share other human and civil concerns. Unhealthy religions prefer to just eliminate the unbelievers, by any means necessary. Eliminationist rhetoric can now be found everywhere.

Secondly, the fire of intellectual curiosity, which should inoculate against the blind acceptance of received opinion, has been largely eclipsed by a superficial mastery of “technique”. Anyone can pride himself on his ability to “make an amusing video”, “pass along a meme”, “produce a well-formed advertisement”, “link to someone else’s (high status) opinion”, and so forth. The content of the material is often a lesser consideration. The currency is popularity and admiration; the moral or ethical considerations are irrelevant. Religions would call this a false pride—the packaging is not the idea.

The devaluation of actual expertise on a topic—that which is necessary to defend an opinion—has removed any shame from refusing to bother defending a statement. It is enough to refer to “what the high-status elites say”, with its implied insult that “if you don’t agree, you are dishonest or stupid (or both)”. The notion that it is possible, and required, to lay out defenses for an opinion, from primary sources, seems to have vanished, along with any suspicion that “high-status” and “intellectual justification” are not necessarily related to eachother. Just because a celebrity opines something doesn’t mean it’s worth taking seriously.

Nothing is more common than to lay out an objection to an opinion by citing data and presenting a reasoned argument and to be met with a “yeah, so?” response. The modern facility with manipulating the tools of media has become more important than the arguments themselves. You cannot reason with those for whom reason is unimportant.

Thirdly, there is no concept of any period but the present, or any history with relevance. The eager surrender of the educational system to emotional and feel-good subjects has effectively removed all data from the curriculum. How can one learn from history if one doesn’t learn history in the first place? How can one learn the traditional stories, including the foundational religious ones, if one cannot read at least the formative literature that echoes them?

How can you teach anything, if you’re afraid of offending? How can you become educated, if you refuse to be shamed by your ignorance?

The denial of reality in education is the enemy of our traditional stories. Our culture’s stories tell us how to live; the wish-fulfillment stories in our educational systems tell us nothing about the real world, and how properly to live in it. An education which confirms the student’s ignorance is no education at all.

We humans learn from the stories we share with eachother. The useful stories that reflect the real world and teach us lessons that keep us alive survive and are retold. The others—the ones that are lies or that glorify bad behavior or that try to impose a false reality—those stories kill us, like a slow-acting poison.

It matters what stories we tell.

Oh, yes, it does.

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