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The anchors of narrative

December 1, 2009

I was reading what is now a rather old post at Guide for my Perplexity entitled Wasteland…there’s actually quite a bit I could address here (it’s all so good!), but I think I want to address some comments from LDS Anarchist in that discussion. In his first comment, he says:

I also believe that there is a way out of the predicament that you find yourself in. I wish I could give you the “key” that would solve everything, but I can’t. The main problem that I see is that you are doubting the spiritual experiences you have had. I don’t know what experiences those were, but whatever they are, if you are doubting their veracity, then you have a real crisis of faith on your hands. Spiritual experiences are the anchor of faith.

As I read, I begin to gloss over…Spiritual experiences…they aren’t something I can grab on to…Anchor of faith…what a trite expression…

but then my eyes stop glossing, and I begin to think about commonality.A thought struck me…what if ‘faith’ is just a narrative? In this case, spiritual experiences are a tool that supports (and perhaps even anchors) that narrative. But spiritual experiences aren’t the only tools, and faith isn’t the only narrative. Instead of getting caught up on the one narrative, I should recognize the broader message of such narrative. I have tried to write similar thoughts in response to Seth’s guest post at LDS & Evangelical Conversations (which I probably should get to writing more about that too).

What are narratives? There are plenty of good links about them (ok, there are more than two links…but I never keep track of these.) Quite simply, though, narratives are the ways we are inclined to view the world and make sense of things in the world…I guess you could call them a part of worldviews as well, then.

When I thought about narratives (and some conversations I’ve had relating…even if tenuously, to the concept), I thought about a rather insightful video game quote (don’t judge me; video games rock.) I’ll tweak it just a bit.

Narratives are the key to telepathy. The mind wraps its secrets in narratives; when we discover the narratives that shape our colleague’s thought, we can penetrate the vault of his mind.

Right? As I’ve tried to express so many times recently…we get into these pissing matches…seeing past each other…we try to lob rhetorical grenades in order to puff up our position, our narrative, our worldview…when lobbing grenades will do nothing but invite grenades back. On the other hand, if we were to step away from our position and try to learn the other person’s narrative, we could, if we truly wanted, do much more damage than we ever thought possible. (Although I imagine that if we truly learned the other person’s narrative, it would defuse us completely.)

So, what about narrative…

I think narratives still need to be anchored…Narratives tie in well, I think, with my comments about authenticity. I think crises…such as crises of faith (or other narratives)…are when we realize that our authenticity is in danger…suddenly, every comfort we had about who we are and what we are about is cast into doubt…

So, what about narrative and spiritual experiences..?! It was in something LDS Anarchist had said:

I’ve gone through times when information has been presented to me that has led to temptations of doubt, but then I’ve always looked over the one type of experience in my life that was vastly different than the others: spiritual manifestations, and the re-analyzation of those experiences always brings me to the same conclusion: I can’t deny or doubt that they really happened. Those experiences are the foundation of my personal existence, meaning that those manifestations are more real to me than anything else I’ve experienced.

I glazed over his description of spiritual manifestations again (sorry!), but there was a line that I took heart to. “Those experiences are the foundation of my personal existence, meaning that those manifestations are more real to me than anything else I’ve experienced.” I don’t need to glaze at implications of objective existence to see an applicable, sincere subjective foundation.

And though the particulars may vary, I realize that I have experiences — though I don’t dare call them spiritual — that reach down to my core in the same way. I’ve seen it from inauthenticity…that’s allowed me to recognize what is authentic to me. I’ve seen it from the alienation, the doubt, the despair, the anguish…and that’s made me recognize what is not alienation, what is not doubted, what is not despaired, and what is not suffered in anguish. Though the universe, the world, and everything and every one may fail, these experiences cannot. They are etched in my existence, I can say. I can hardly share them with others without others wondering what’s wrong with me.

And then I realize.

Do I not do the same? Have my eyes not glazed over? Have they not rolled at others’ narratives being born so openly? Yet I DARE to lament when others have done the same to the foundation, the anchor of my narrative.

…I still don’t know how to bridge the gap though. I know that narratives are the key to telepathy, so to speak, but still, I am unversed in any other narrative but my own, and I don’t know how to begin to truly learn the second language without either immediately cheapening it or without irreparably changing the relationship with my first and native tongue.

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12 Comments
  1. FireTag permalink

    Very self-insightful, Andrew.

  2. FireTag permalink

    PS: Love the snowflakes, but I thought for a minute my cataracts were spiraling out of control.

  3. The snowflakes actually blow even *my* mind sometimes.

  4. I really love this post.

    After I read it, my friend was asking me about my mission and wondered if I had been insincere. I told her that the “spiritual experiences” I’ve had in my life are still just as real to me – it’s just that I attach different meanings/values to them now. I have a new narrative to explain my experiences. Did I get it right?

    (Whoa there are snowflakes falling through the comment box too!)

  5. Simplysarah, I think that is a spot-on interpretation. It actually raises an interesting idea…of how we can be sincere one way…and sincere another…and yet we are saying two different things…it’s because we were in different situations with different meanings/values/frameworks.

  6. That wasn’t Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri was it?

    That game was full of cool quotes.

  7. Yes it was SMAC.

    and yes, it was full of cool quotes. 😀

  8. I like what you are saying Andrew,

    We all struggle to interpret the world, the swirling complexity of existence. We grasp for experiences that can push us one way or another and allow us to have some sense of what we are going through.

    Ultimately we all live in some sort of dream world. never getting our explanations of our own existence quite “right”.

    As you say, our justifications for our particular world views often take their form in narratives, explanations, justifications etc.

    I became an atheist when. . .
    I became a mormon when . . .
    I left the mormon church after. . .
    I came to Jesus when . . .

    In the lives of those that live through these experiences there is always a narrative attached that often is the ultimate and strongest reason for their spiritual and psychic course of action. Inevitably our narratives are infused with our own self-dishonesty as well as our own unique insight, but that is their genius as well as a reason not to simply trust other’s experience.

    So, my approach is generally to embrace each of the narratives that I hear and try to seek to understand the kernel of human experience and the emotional trajectory that could possibly make me believe the same way. Not so I can feel smug that I can explain why so many people believe what they do, but to really grasp what its like to see things from that perspective for my own benefit. I refuse to reduce human experience down to psychological, emotional, neuro-chemical or whatever phenomena, especially when those types of explanations have always been so limited and leave out what cannot be said.

    I am a Mormon, I have had spiritual experiences that are absolutely “Mormon” and “Real” yet I most true believers would consider me wandering in the mists of darkness, having nearly rejected the iron rod.

    I have a sensibility and commitment to rationality that could make me an atheist, I recognize the limits of the evidence that a personal God exists, yet my own experiences, even if they are easy to doubt and deconstruct, seem more real than the artifice of rationality that is not anchored by such powerful experiences.

    Part of my quest to be human is to have more of such anchoring experiences, and make the narratives that spring from them both deeper and more understandable to others, even those whose narratives seem to be more captured by a particular faith/intellectual tradition.

  9. Thanks for commenting too, Jared. Let me see if I can give a reply with justice.

    The interesting thing for me is that many of my narrative descriptors don’t take the role of, “I became a (xxx) when…”

    For example…when did I become an atheist? Umm…I was always an atheist. When did I realize it? Oh, I realized it when I said, “I don’t believe in God” enough times and realized what exactly that meant.

    When did I become a Mormon is tougher. Theologically, I could say I never was…culturally, I can say from birth. I can say that it doesn’t change with my theological standing…I still have cultural artifacts and a cultural foundation here. I think it’s because an ex-mormon is distinctly different than a non-Mormon. That highlights it.

    But even when people shift identities (e.g., “I became xxx when…”) I don’t think this is necessarily an example of people defining their existences incorrectly…but rather of the rare (and not altogether consciously influenciable) process of changing essences.

    I don’t think our narratives should be filled with “self-dishonesty.” Certainly, they will be filled with selective memory, selective interpretation of events and fabrications of events, but this isn’t self dishonesty. Because if one is dishonest with oneself, this brings the misery of inauthenticity. (This is not who I am!)

    Instead, the odd thing is how we can LIE to others, and psychologically, we will begin to believe the lie to be true! Eventually we will forget the true nature of events! So we are no longer “dishonest” with the self…instead, our narrative is honest with ourselves but divorced from objective reality (which is no problem as long as we recognize our narratives *are* subjective)

    So, my approach is generally to embrace each of the narratives that I hear and try to seek to understand the kernel of human experience and the emotional trajectory that could possibly make me believe the same way. Not so I can feel smug that I can explain why so many people believe what they do, but to really grasp what its like to see things from that perspective for my own benefit. I refuse to reduce human experience down to psychological, emotional, neuro-chemical or whatever phenomena, especially when those types of explanations have always been so limited and leave out what cannot be said.

    I am a bit skeptical. It seems to me that the only way to truly understand another’s narrative *is* to believe it. It *is* to truly adopt it. (After all, wouldn’t that be the most legitimate way to know the “emotional trajectory that could possibly make you believe that way.”)

    The problem is…this takes more than walking a mile in the other person’s shoes. Rather, this means assuming their body, their mind, their experiences. And if we do this, don’t we sabotage our own identities? If you were to understand what it is to be an atheist (like, an atheist atheist), then what it would take is a sabotaging of the experiences with God. What it would take is a dismantling, a cheapening, a damning of the faith that “makes sense.”

    But I wonder, IS IT POSSIBLE for you to even do this? I don’t think it’s voluntarily, consciously possible. And question two: EVEN IF IT WERE POSSIBLE, would it be desirable? I must strongly say no. I would cringe at the idea that someone would dismantle, cheapen, and blast their narrative just for the sake of legitimately understanding another’s.

  10. I had forgotten I had written those comments. Thanks for bringing them to my attention again.

  11. To be sure, LDS Anarchist, they are pretty old and Jared C should post more recent stuff!

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