--Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions,
trans. Rosmarie Waldrop
(Middletown, Conn., 1972), p. 31
If I have a singular, capital-B, capital-S, "Belief System," it is one in the power of narrative, the tidal strength of story to draw us in and direct our paths in life. If I were inclined to the L. Ron Hubbard way of thinking, I would make a religion of story, with rituals of telling and hierarchies of naming, of reshaping and remembering. I'm not so inclined, but neither would I be surprised to see a formalized religion of story emerge in the coming decades*. We are all searching for meaning in life, for purpose, direction; to be remembered, perhaps; certainly to have lived for a reason.
I cannot think of a more distinct endorsement for the power of narrative than the quote above, from Egyptian/Jewish/French poet Edmond Jabès. (Caveat: While I grew up believing in God, I do not any longer. For those of you who believe in God, please understand that I'm not making any commentary here on the value of those beliefs, but rather on the power and value of the narratives that can--and do--drive any number of belief systems.) Throughout his work, Jabès discusses the meaning of words, their power, the value of being inside of a story that we ourselves are writing. In the example above, we get one of the clearest examples of the power a story can have in shaping the world. The phrase "In the beginning, God..." sets a hell of a path in motion, when taken as the pretext for existence. Civilizations have literally risen and fallen over the words that follow, over the stories in that one book. Look at the simple example of the two half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael, one loved and one cast aside, and the complex, conflicting identities of the peoples that look to them as progenitors, and have not forgotten a grudge older than memory, if it ever happened that way at all. How much has the world been changed by the willingness to belief that a woman gave birth to a boy with no father, who grew up to be a radical voice calling for social reform, got nailed to a cross, and turned out to be the embodiment of a deity? And those are just examples from one set of books, one portion of the many-faceted history of the world. What of the Bhagavad Gita, or the Ramayana? What of
No, wait, don't dismiss those ideas--people really and truly and deeply believe them. It matters to them. Why? THAT is the question that we must answer, because those narratives are compelling enough to sink roots deep into the psyche, to tap into deep emotions and undercurrents of thought. They have undeniably changed the course of history.
They are words, mere seeds of ideas. "From the tiny acorn, the mighty oak tree grows."
Look how much they matter, these words, these stories.
What we do, shaping stories, can change the world. Never doubt it.
*Actually, the Australian Aboriginal belief in the Dreaming may be one of the closest examples I've seen of story and existence being closely interwoven, though of course there are references throughout many other texts, including the speaking of creation in the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible and the logos reference that starts off the Book of John in the New Testament.