Sunday, 25 December 2011

The Most Important Story Ever Told?

There's a really interesting difference between stories and photographs. Photos aren't very selective about what they capture. Take a photo of you and your mates on a night out and there'll always be bits in it that you weren't really interested in. You'll have snippets of other people on the dance floor, the edges of the bar, even someone photo-bombing. Even if you cropped the photo so that it only showed your mates and some of the background venue, you'd still have excess. You surely wouldn't be too interested in your mate's little finger. The photo isn't supposed to be a photo of your mate's smallest digit, it's a photo about the group of you having fun. Yet there it is in the photo all the same.

Stories aren't like that - they don't reveal every detail of what's going on. In fact it is the mark of a bad story if it tells you too much needless trivia. Harry Potter would have hardly benefited had every trip to the loo been recorded (I recall a fair bit of bathroom time in Chamber of Secrets but nothing on an excessive scale). Of course JK Rowling does not intend us to think that her characters never heard nature call. It's just that the story doesn't need to go there. It isn't about that. Such things are not important in the Potter universe and the story draws attention to that which is.

We can learn a lot about what a person thinks is important by the kind of stories they like to hear. Tell the same story to two different people and one may want to hear about the kind of world the main characters live in: it's terrain, politics and history - and the other may want to know about the thoughts and feelings of the characters. But more than that, I think that what a people sees as important, what values they have, is determined by what grand story they believe about the world.

If you think that life is about doing good things to please God then you are likely to place a large emphasis on keeping rules. If you think that life is about loving your friends and family, then you'll place a large emphasis on spending time with them and maybe spoiling them. If you think that life is about being one with nature then you'll probably think animal rights are particularly important.

The advert on the left is one I found while I was wondering around Northampton town centre struggling to fit all my Christmas shopping into one afternoon. As a matter of fact I'd seen it before and found it quite striking. Upon seeing it again, I knew I needed to a get a snap of it (which was kind of awkward to explain to the girl who was behind the stall promoting the shop.) It is striking because of how explicitly it promotes the view that what is really important is ourselves - that the grand story of the universe is about the individual. In fact I took a couple other pics that afternoon of adverts that trumpeted the importance of the individual consumer - their rights and desires. This sort of message is everywhere. I've heard our era described in a few places as "the century of the self", or in words to that effect.

Now probably most of us feel a little uneasy about the boldness of this advert. We wouldn't really want to affirm that its message is what we actually believe. But perhaps we're not so far from it as we think. After all, marketing that conveys this self-affirming sentiment is common-place ("you're worth it", the iPod and iMax, "my Northampton county council", Facebook's encouragement to use timeline to share your story). Do we really think that these adverts exist without reflecting the broad cultural mood? Of course, we all think we're the ones that adverts are wasted on. We don't really think we base our consumer choices on the obviously false notions that adverts portray. After all who buys Lynx deodorant honestly thinking that after a couple sprays flocks of women will be fighting over you? But the advert isn't asking you to accept that what it portrays is literally true. It merely connects the product with a certain sentiment or feeling we hold unconsciously. Nobody thinks that advertising gets them. Have you ever heard somebody say "yeah I bought that car because the advert made it look really cool"? Of course not. But since companies probably aren't spending millions on advertising for no reason, I'd say we don't know ourselves very well. I think we really do believe that the self is one of, if not the crucial character in the grand story of life.

The Western Grand Narrative

The master narrative held in the modern west is a historically perculiar one. It is that fundamentally there are individuals, not communities. And what life is about is these individuals discovering who they truly are deep down, or constructing who they truly are, and then living out this identity as authentically as possible, staying true to oneself, expressing oneself.

Living with this sort of narrative has many consequences and not all of them I fully understand. But many of the ones I do understand I have experienced as negative. While I'm not sure I'd advocate a full-blown collectivism as a corrective, I am certain that the amount of emphasis given to the self in the West is destructive. 

First of all we should understand that traditional wisdom has always been against emphasising the self over the other. Love is seen as laying down one's rights to serve the other, not stubbornly asserting one's rights to self-expression. I take my life experience as having shown the light in this wisdom. But there is also a philosophical insight that might explicitly expose self-focus as self-defeating (pun not intended!) Consider that we tend to be happy (at least briefly) when something has gone as we wanted it to. We are happy when our team wins at football, or when our daughter gets good exam results, or when our friend marries a worthy lover. But when the satisfaction of the self's desires is the wanted thing, then you'll only be happy if you're satisfied. But surely, a large part of the self's desires just is to be happy. In which case, you'll only be happy if you're happy, and so happiness is impossible to attain unless you already have it!

The other drawbacks I'm not sure I can demonstrate at this stage, but I've certainly felt their sting in my life. Because this modern form of identity is inward-looking and primally disconnected from others and the external world (as opposed to outward-looking views of identity held by the majority of people who have ever lived) I've fell into excessive introspection (examination of self) that has often left me feeling lost and utterly unsure of what I actually think or feel. This disconnect has also made it hard to truly experience the world outside the mind as really there, impacting reality. As such what really brings a sense of being alive is just internal emotional states - high doses of intense feeling, drawn from music or some other art. It is what Andrew Fellows calls "waking the ghost" of the modern self and the principle of "intensity over profundity." The pain of others expressed through art is used merely as a drug to bring an emotional high. But perhaps the worst thing of all is how other people end up used merely as a mirror to reflect back positive images of yourself. Concerned with expressing the right sense of self, everything becomes centred around how you appear to others. When they see you favourably, you feel great, when they don't you feel awful. And there's no proper engagement with them as human beings that have their own genuine concerns and feelings. In that social situation their purpose is to enable you to feel good about your self. All this troubles me significantly.

I want to live a deeper story. A narrative larger than myself that pulls me out of myself and put things in the proper perspective. I want to absord the Christian narrative better so that I see that I am not the main character. I play a very small part of something much much bigger - something that spans the whole of history and the cosmos. A story that is grand in scale and is ultimately about a person far more wonderful than I. A story that truly is the greatest and most important that could ever be told.


rolo said...

Anyhoo, we've talked quite a bit about this issue and I feel like this post brought up an insight I've been pondering for quite some time now. The insight basically deals with the issue of the very structure of our society.
One thing I've noticed from studying biblical anthropology and social sciences is that societies aren't structured the way they are for no reason. For example, the reason why societies like the Ancient Near East were so strongly colletivistic was because it was the only way to survive. People quite simply couldn't live on their own. Relating this back to the issue of individualism you make the point in your article how businesses actually encourage and take advantage of this mindset. One thing worth pondering is whether or not the issue is much deeper than simply modern businesses promoting, but rather modern capitalism requiring individualism or possibly vice versa.

Ryan said...

"I've fell into excessive introspection (examination of self) that has often left me feeling lost and utterly unsure of what I actually think or feel. This disconnect has also made it hard to truly experience the world outside the mind as really there, impacting reality"

I've been feeling this way alot myself very recently and feel like I am wrestling with it. I am constantly in my 'mind' and seem to be oblivious to simple beautiful things around me sometimes like a sunrise on the way to work. I feel disconnected with the world around me at times and panic in myself and feel unsettled, and this leads me to wondering if things are okay between me and God.

Thank you for your insightful post, I'm glad I'm not the only one who has felt like that :)


Martin said...

Rolo - Yeah that's definitely an interesting concern. I was struck, when I watched the "Century of the Self" documentary, by how businesses, prior to the boom in extreme individualism, were worried about whether the mass production they were now involved in would eventually be too much for the limited demand. But now, thanks to the constant need to express oneself, business has an all-consuming consumer.

Also, we need to set an "accountability deadline" for me to return the edit to you. How about Sunday eve? That said, you should know that I've been writing pretty fiercely. I've written 5000 words in the last couple days and have basically pre-written a series I'm going to post after your stuff. Inspiration struck, had to roll with it etc.

Ryan - Nice to hear from you, mate! You certainly aren't alone in that. I'd recommend listening to this talk by Andrew Fellows on the problem in introspection,

Jez said...

Hi Martin,
Great article - your writing style is as inspiring and refreshing as your honesty. I really enjoy reading your blog.
However I just wanted to have a quick look again at the below comment:
"First of all we should understand that traditional wisdom has always been against emphasising the self over the other. Love is seen as laying down one's rights to serve the other, not stubbornly asserting one's rights to self-expression."
Whilst on the surface I mostly agree with this statement I have been really changed by a lot of John Piper's work over the last 3-4 years. I think if we’re not careful with this we could start to go down an ungodly road.
The bible seems to encourage us on numerous occasions to search for a life that truly satisfies – almost as if hedonism is actually a good thing. Even when the bible says we need to lose our lives, it does so to encourage us to find true life. Jeremiah 2 tells us that we are guilty of chasing after things that don’t profit us and this hugely angers God. It’s not that the search for satisfying the self is wrong, but rather the way we search for satisfying is wrong. Our pleasure ought to be found in God – he is the fountain of all delights, in His presence there is fullness of joy, and his right hand there are pleasures everlasting. (psalm 16).
Over the last 15-20 years or so I have been on a journey, at first I wanted to seek my own pleasure, then I realised that to chase after my own enjoyment above others was wrong, I needed to sacrifice in order to live righteously. But now I believe that it goes deeper still. I need to chase my own pleasure as God would intend. In putting others first I actually end up finding more pleasure than putting myself first – I find my own enjoyment climaxes as I look to serve God and serve others. I now do the dishes at home not because I have to but because I get to serve my wife. I now want to give more to charities not because I feel I ought to but because I actually consider it a privilege. When people say thanks and I say ‘my pleasure’ – For the first time ever I actually mean it!
The bible encourages us to be cheerful givers – that’s impossible unless we find pleasure in doing it – otherwise it’s just fake. So the bible seems to be suggesting that we can almost be selfish in our selflessness. I’m not saying it’s right to treat others badly in order to satisfy yourself, but what I am saying is that by treating others badly you are not even coming close to truly satisfying yourself. When I get to give to other people, or serve other people I ought to enjoy it – if not then the whole experience is false and extremely ungodly.
Does this rambling make any sense?
On a separate note I do love how you finish this blog – I think it’s totally appropriate for us to fixate on the true hero of our story, but again I find so pleasure in doing so – I find myself far more satisfied here than doing anything else.

Martin said...

Hi Jez, thanks so much for the encouraging feedback. I'm really glad you enjoy reading the blog.

You raise some really interesting issues around desire and satisfaction, and how they relate to morality and serving God. I should say that the comments of mine that you highlight, within the context of the piece, are meant to emphasise the fact that we should not value ourselves over God and others. Which is just to say that we shouldn't consider ourselves to be more important than others (and certainly not God!) I think that is something Christians should have little problem agreeing on.

But that is not to say that pleasure can't properly be a leading motivation in serving others. Perhaps it is. I certainly do think that Godliness and holiness is pleasurable (and I wish I'd remember that more often). I'm not really sure where I stand on how pleasure is supposed to motivate us, or how exactly it ranks in terms of motivational priority, but I think you're right that the Bible seems to suggest that doing things for the sake of pleasure is ok. To be honest I'm not sure I have a clear view on the Biblical teaching on "moral motivation". Something I need to think on. But as I say, this article wasn't supposed to touch that issue as such.