Sunday, October 26, 2008

Remembrance and anticipation

Another element to add to the TEA model mix has to do with how people look backward to evaluate the past, forward to plan the future, and outward to try to understand it all. I am calling this element “story”.

What does “story” include? Hope and fear, imagination, belief, hypotheses and theories, histories and science -- no matter what we shove in this category, this element is going to be one of the most important in the whole TEA theory.

Human beings know very little from their own experience. At any one moment in time, I know the current temperature and lighting levels, what people and animals are nearby, whether I am hungry or full, in pain or in comfort, and not a lot else.

Almost everything that we say we know or believe about the world is either something experienced in the past, or taught to us secondhand through education, other people's experiences as recounted by them or conveyed to us by the media, or the larger structures of understanding which we have been taught, and which might be called "storyline".

It is not possible to underestimate how important it is to remember this. Maps are needful, but the map is not the land.

There is an old Sufi story about a wealthy man who goes on a journey away from home.
As he is returning, a couple of days from home, he rests along the road. Another fellow, poor but clever, also arrives that evening. The wealthy man asks the poor man, "How are things in my home town?"

The poor man knows nothing about this wealthy man or his home town, but hoping for a share of the wealthy man's picnic supper which sits before him in lavish variety, the poor man tells him that all is well, the city is in peace and prosperity.

"Good," says the wealthy man, and goes on with his supper.

Angry at this miserliness, the poor man decides to continue on towards town in the cool of the night. He meets up again with the same wealthy man the following evening at the next resting place. It becomes obvious that the wealthy man doesn't remember him in the least, because again he asks, "Do you know how things are in my hometown?" The poor man shakes his head in sorrow and says, "I am so sorry to tell you the bad news. Things would be just fine if your barn hadn't caught fire and burned."

"My barn?" cried the wealthy man in shock.

"But the barn is nothing, really," said the poor man. "It was when the fire spread to your house that the real trouble began."

"My house!" cried the wealthy man.

"But of course to a wealthy man like you, a house is nothing at all. You could have it rebuilt in no time, I am sure. The real sadness is that your wife and children were in the house asleep, and they have all perished too."

And having said that, the poor man went to his sleeping place, leaving the wealthy man to rush off toward town without bothering to gather his things together. The wealthy men wept all night as he traveled, but the poor man feasted and then slept soundly.

In this story, the rich man got off easy. When he got home, barn and home and family were all just fine. But what the poor man told him illustrated the hazard of forgetting which is the map and which is the land.

We need story to understand the world, but as a tool, not as a truth. It is not for nothing that when a con artist is setting up his cheat, he calls it “telling the tale”.

Each human being has their own allotment of tau, and uses it as best they can. Sometimes they enrich themselves, like the poor man in the story, by using story to influence people’s use of time, effort and attention to their own benefit. Other times they can use story to bind people together into a mutually beneficial organization of great strength. To avoid the one and encourage the other ought to be the work of every concerned citizen. Too often, it isn’t even seen at all.

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