Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



     We would-be human beings are born in a state of ignorance.  When we arrive in this sphere of existence, none of us has a clue as to what is going on.  We have to learn the local language and become oriented.  Every society has its stories designed to inform new members about the way things are here.  And because we hear these explanations and accountings from our families, teachers and friends, we are inclined to believe them.
     Our informants, of course, were born ignorant, too, and are just proceeding on the basis of what somebody once told them.  But so united in agreement is everyone around us, and so compelling is the ongoing local activity, that we tend not to think too much about the sources and reliability of the stories we are hearing, but rather to accept them as given.
     And yet it is quite clear that which stories we hear and accept for true depends completely on the circumstances of our birth.  We believe we are who and what we are told we are -- and people in different times and cultures and classes have had very different tales to tell.
     Human stories disagree and disagree and disagree.  And when they do, we know which ones are to be relied upon and which are not.
     Our stories -- whoever we happen to be -- are right.  Everybody else's are doubtful or worse.
     Just look how mistaken the stories of former times were.  And as recently as yesterday, too.
     Nor were they off target just one time, or in one way.  To the extent that we can recover the wisdom of the past, it's one set of bizarre yarns after another.  When you look at them all, it has to seem a wonder that we ever managed to get here from there.
    Many stories are told today, too, by people on the other side of the world, the other side of campus, or the other side of the street, which are incompatible with the stories we swear by.  We know what that has to mean.  Those stories are wrong, too.  Because if they aren't, then our stories must be, and that would leave us dangling in the middle of nothing with no foundation.  Just like everybody else.
     As it is, we're uniquely lucky.  Out of all the people living now or who've ever lived, it seems that it is we who are specially privileged to be the ones with the true scoop.
     What a comfort to know.
     Except that when we're in a state of mind to examine our own rationales and constructions more closely than we usually do, and are honest enough to say what's really there and what isn't, we have to acknowledge that the tales we tell are less than airtight, too.  They display their own share of unknowns, contradictions, vaguenesses, gaps and exclusions.
     It seems that story is all people have to live by...but every story that we tell is limited and flawed.  Whatever should we make of that?
     Well, for one thing, if you add up all the stories we've told, it looks as though at one time or another people have been ready to believe just about any damn thing and attempt to live as though it were really so.
     Not only that, but -- strangely and wonderfully -- all these many different incompatible and mistaken stories appear to work, at least for as long and as well as they do work.  Some of the queerest -- by contemporary standards -- managed to work for a very long time.
     It appears that the ground of being which underlies and sustains us despite our various inadequate and conflicting stories must be extremely tolerant, generous and forgiving.
     All things considered, it wouldn't hurt if we were, too.

     A story is a sequential linking of one state or condition with another, a series of "and thens."  Story is connection and transformation.

     The storyteller said:  "And so, all the lands of the world came to swim in an immense ocean contained in the armpit of a great frog.  The frog sits upon a turtle.  The turtle rests on the back of an elephant.  The elephant stands upon a rock."
     He nodded then to indicate that the story was over.  He was asked: "And what is under the rock holding it up?"
     "A story," he said, indicating a height with his hand.
     "And what is under that?"
     "Another story."
     "And beneath that?"
     The storyteller said, "It's stories all the way down."

     No tale tells all.

     Anything and everything we say is a story elaborated out of previous story.
     A metaphor is a story in a word. It says that one thing is another.
     Every sentence has a story to tell.
     We cannot open our mouths to speak without uttering story.  We cannot help ourselves.  Language is storytelling.
     Semanticist Alfred Korzybski wanted us to be more aware than we usually are that we are telling stories, and that what we say is incomplete and contingent, and not reality.  He told us that the map is not the territory.  Those were metaphors.  He also objected that use of the word "is" -- as in "language is storytelling" -- is partial and misleading and recommended that it be avoided.  Yet watch his words as he would, Korzybski was no more able than the rest of us to stop using the verb of existence and identity.  Korzybski, whether he liked it or not, was a storymaker.
     Scientists and objectivists tell their stories in rigidly framed sentences using the most inert metaphors they can find.  They are still telling stories.
     Deconstructionists demonstrate that our most respected studies and sciences aren't truly authoritative after all, but are only so many stories.  Even as they do this, they're telling stories too.

     Story is the one aspect of society which reflects all aspects of society.

     Gregory Bateson said: "The fact of thinking in terms of stories does not isolate human beings as something separate from the starfish and the sea anemone, the coconut palms and the primroses.  Rather, if the world be connected, if I am at all fundamentally right in what I am saying, then thinking in terms of stories must be shared by all mind or minds, whether ours or those of redwood forests and sea anemones."

     The value of a story is not measured by what one person or another is able to make of it, but by what it includes and what it connects and what it makes possible.

     All existence is a story.  Everything which has being in time is a story within a story.
     Story is inherent in the past-to-future flow of time.  Story is the means by which an evolutionary universe manifests itself, connecting and transforming, connecting and transforming, connecting and transforming.
     A rock is a very simple story.
     Living beings are more complex, active and meaningful stories.  What distinguishes us among living creatures is the degree to which we have internalized story.  We don't just mark time like a rock, or express the pattern of our kind like the redwood forest and the sea anemone.  We think story.  We act story.  We make stories of our lives.  We connect and transform.
     We are only so-so good at it thus far.
     If we were more aware that storytelling is what we are doing, we might be more ready to change our stories when they need to be changed. If we were less attached to the stories we tell, we might be better at reconciling our stories when they have to be reconciled.  We're also prone to forget that if we are going to be active creators of story, we are under an obligation to tell the best and most useful stories that we can conceive.
     But if the universe is story, and the evolution of life on this planet is story, and our striving to complete our humanity is story, then we're on the right track.


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Written 1992.  Posted March 2001. 


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