We are born into a world of narratives, each one of us, and depending on accidents of geography, we are fed different narratives. We are born into whatever government we have, we are molded into what is expected of us, and we are even told who we must like or hate. These are things societies do, passed down from generation to generation, as a method of keeping things cohesive to an extent. That cohesiveness comes at the cost of adhesiveness between groups.
These narratives always start off with good intentions, and are carried on with the best of intentions, be it whether the intentions are for others or ourselves, or likely some mix in between. What does it matter to anyone that someone they never met has committed suicide? We believe we should care. We are told we should care. Society demands us to care. We care, in an odd sort of way, but we know nothing of the person and rather than get to know who they were, we find reasons for what they did not as much for them – it’s much too late for them – but because we worry that someone we do know will.
When a mass shooter kills a bunch of kids, we necessarily understand that the children are the future. We empathize with the parents, but unless we see that it could happen to children we know, we don’t worry about them. We might shrug it off. Just as when a missile kills a lot of civilians on another part of the planet, who was raised on different narratives we think are inferior because they are not our own, we can shrug off easily that and go about complaining about the line in the coffee shop.
It’s only when we see ourselves in other people that we pay attention. When we see people like us or near enough to who we see ourselves as – not necessarily who we are – we can empathize, because we recognize them not as human, but as someone like us.
Being ‘human’, unfortunately, is demonstrably not enough as we cast our gaze across the planet in a moment, even this one, and should we dare peer back through that gaze, we will see the pattern dancing in time. All because of the misfortune of the incompatibility of systems of thought that were designed implicitly to form an identity, and where there is identity, there is an isolationism to secure that identity even if that identity is to not be isolationist.
Tomorrow, children all over the world will be born who will likely will never meet, born into systems of conflict that they had no say in. Systems that may oppress others within the system, a very human trait, such that others may benefit – which is where some begin preaching another narrative of communism, or socialism, and where junior college students intellectually masturbate – those systems end up the same way, but without some form of recourse. Some of us were told democracy was best, but no two democracies are done the same, and what constitutes ‘freedom’ is largely dictated by a government detached from the people who allegedly get it… if they work hard, we tell them, things will get better, a lie told since the agricultural revolution – perhaps even before. It keeps society together so that some can scrape the cream off the boiling milk of humanity. Every system does this, it’s a matter of how.
It’s a matter of what humans do. We’ll deny it and claim that it’s not that way, and sit our children in front of flat screens filled with narratives that preach how fair the world is when it most certainly is not, even letting some of them think that the world owes them some strange birthright to impose their will on others as they please with no recourse.
We are such odd creatures, creating worlds of fictions for generations that confine the generations to those fictions. We have knee jerk reactions when other fictions are brought forward. A different religion? Not believing in religion or supreme beings? Off with their heads!
They disagree with us? Cancel them. They say something we disagree with? “Clearly, not one of my people!”.
And with all of that it is easy to dissemble harsh realities of circumstance that are outside of our own narratives because, we tell ourselves quietly, if they were only like us, it would not have happened to them.
How unfortunate about flooding in that part of the world, but no, climate change is not real, let me hop in my SUV to have coffee with a friend. How terrible that those people over there are getting killed, if only they had the good sense to be like us, it would not have happened! Oh my, a global pandemic! We’ll isolate our society and see who does best, locking down borders not because we don’t want to spread from our magic lines on the map, but because we fear the spread within our magic lines, our borders of our society, marked by people who have long since died.
But every now and then, something creeps in on us in an increasingly flattened world through communication. Every now and then we feel a sense of connectedness across a distance that would have taken a lifetime to travel not so long ago, because there are commonalities in our narratives, our fictions. There are things we can agree on. There are things we see in others as mirrors of ourselves, little lights across the world that blink even for a moment, making us begin to question the narratives we were born into.
This is happening across the world right now, increasingly, but we usually only see the disagreement and even the violence because the majority of us stick together, blinded by our surroundings to what lays beyond, that which we were told is not good.
Societies, as we call them, are often big enough where they have different societies in them with different experiences. The kid from South Boston may have more in common with the kid in Zimbabwe than either will with the people not 50 miles away, within their own societies. The children of the wealth gravitate to each other for the same reason, because they see themselves in each other. Maybe the trouble is not culture or religion or the artificial construct of race – all of them are artificial, really, but race is a fiction built on fictions and built into fictions, enough so where people still talk about it because people still act on it.
Meanwhile, at the individual level, everything we see and do and learn impacts who we are, and we see similarities in other people across the spectrum. Society might say they can’t be friends, or even fall in love, but that bond can defy the bonds of society, the social contracts our baby feet were inked and pressed upon without our assent.
Knowing this all – because we can’t un-know it – why do we ask children what they want to be when they grow up as a ‘career day’ rather than ask how they think they can improve the world? Because the world, in most of our minds, is only as big as the society we live in, and that society needs doctors, lawyers, and ditch-diggers and dish-washers.
Left to our own devices, we might just jump in puddles all day, some seem to think. What a crazy thought. Our societies need people to serve them coffee without incident, present a smile that must look real at theme parks, serve umbrellas with drinks and otherwise pamper us because where would we be without that? We might have a human experience, and those are uncomfortable because that’s not our narrative, some think. To have a conversation beyond, “I’d like a caramel iced latte!” might lead us to break down a part of the system that works for others.
Trapped in the straitjackets of society, we slam into each other on the internet, unable to do anything but bump, bite and kick…
Until we take the straitjackets off and begin interacting differently.
Image at top made with Inspirobot.me.