By Brianna Wiest
The anthropology of storytelling is simple: it’s the way we communicate important ideas. Fables are more effective than lists of facts because characters serve as points of reference – the person reading or listening can identify with them, and it’s the identification that resonates. Storytelling is fundamental to human nature, yet it is one of the few things in which we rarely discuss – or recognize – the shadow side of.
Storytelling is informative, it is comforting, it is inspiring, but it can also delude us. The stories we tell ourselves of the people we want to be or what’s morally and existentially “right” or how other people see us is not always correct, and when we believe it entirely, it can shape the way we see ourselves and function in our lives.
The “shadow side” of storytelling is what happens when we are faced with the unknown. In 2005, Neil deGrasse Tyson coined a term for this: “the perimeter of ignorance.” He stated that if you study older texts very carefully, you find that a pattern emerges: when we don’t have the answer for something, we create a mythology to explain it.
But a careful reading of older texts, particularly those concerned with the universe itself, shows that the authors invoke divinity only when they reach the boundaries of their understanding. They appeal to a higher power only when staring into the ocean of their own ignorance. They call on God only from the lonely and precarious edge of incomprehension. Where they feel certain about their explanations, however, God gets hardly a mention.
Tyson goes on to list all the instances throughout history that illustrate this best. For example: Isaac Newton, a phenomenal intellect, understood that the law of gravity enables you to calculate the force of attraction between any two objects. It was through this theory that, for the first time in history, he could identify gravitational attraction between planets, and therefore, come to understand the concept of “orbit.” However, he also realized that if you introduce a third object into that gravitational attraction, the orbits are manipulated. He feared that all of the pulling between the planets would result in cosmic catastrophe, or worse, that the planets should have fallen into a black hole long ago. So Newton concludes his greatest work, Principia, with the fact that God must occasionally step in and “make things right.”
Of course, a century later, Pierre-Simon de Laplace was able to devise a new kind of mathematics called perturbation theory, which explained why the planets functioned the way they did.
While you may only be feeling uncomfortable by now having to consider what appears to be an ever-widening gap between religion and science, forget about that for a moment, and re-focus on the thing we can reconcile. (Ourselves.)
The issue that is so clearly in front of us is an inability to accept our own ignorance, while at the same time, actively trying to identify it in everyone else. Accepting our own ignorance is not accepting stupidity, it’s the first and most crucial step toward actually learning.
We recognize the need to be smart and informed. We see this as an objective “good.” So much in fact, that we would rather project the façade that we know everything as opposed to confront the fact that we don’t, can’t and never will.
This is not a moment to lament the existential failings of humanity, but to recognize our infinite potential. Within the idea that we don’t know what we don’t know exists the fact that we can learn in ways we never thought possible.
We do ourselves a disservice by not acclimating our minds to being comfortable with simply not knowing. Not knowing who we’ll spend our lives with, what the purpose of our existence is, the specifics of our politics, how we feel about ourselves. If there is one thing that is more intriguing than human failings, it is human potential – and maybe if we open ourselves up to telling our stories differently, we could tell them in ways greater than ever before.