Save the Universe in Your Spare Time, From the Comfort of Your Writing Desk
Story may not be the only way to deal with the ultimate demise of everything, but it’s one of the best. We can’t stop time, but, with story, we can find our place in it.
A Stitch in the Frayed Fabric of the Universe
Entropy, the universe’s pesky proclivity for disorder, ensures that things fall apart. Thread by thread, the Navajo blanket of space and time will decay into formlessness. All of it. Any attempt to delay disorder, including efforts to clean up my office, only contribute to the eventual heat death of our universe.
This fundamental truth flies in the face of our ceaseless instinct to categorize, rank and order experiences to ensure that life’s lessons are learned quickly and with minimal pain. When these lessons are encoded in our brains they color our view of the world, and, in bold defiance of entropy, create the synaptic illusion of permanence.
Story emerges from this illusion.
The First Level of Story: Cause and Effect
As our ancestors roamed the forest, the lessons of the trees - which fruits to eat, which animals to avoid - were critical to survival. On the time scales of their “nasty, brutish and short” lives, learning these lessons for themselves was about all they had time for.
But it was enough to allow the species the eons necessary to develop meaty frontal lobes and, after they descended to the savanna, the capacity for language. Now their lessons could be shared.
Language allowed humans, unique among Odin’s creation, to convey the organizing principles of their minds directly to others, to share observations on cause and effect. For example:
Possibly overheard on the savanna:
What ho! When I strike these two stones, thusly, they proffer the lusty heat of the sun!
A useful story, and, in the absence of additional input, a seemingly enduring one, as in:
…lusty heat of the sun! For all time. Thus occurring it shall persist, ne’er changing as the spheres, and of same surety and reliance.
The irony is that for all of its utility, the capacity of the human mind that allowed for language and story, namely abstraction, fomented undeniable contradictions to the illusion of permanence. Abstraction opened the doors of imagination to perspectives beyond the here and now, as in:
Lusty heat of the sun?... Well and good, but I’m going to die someday!
Yes, you are. And what to do about it? If it’s all falling apart, if we’re all entropy’s bitches, why bother?
This question is impossible to answer with simple cause and effect. As any inquisitive three-year-old can demonstrate, unless you are trafficking in fundamental truth, there will always be another why.
The Second Level of Story: Why
Consider this simple sequence:
As the earth shook, the building collapsed (entropy). Ivan saw a path to safety, but stopped when he heard his brother Petrov call out from under a fallen beam. Ivan sprang into action and plunged back into the building as debris bashed his head and shoulders… Ivan dragged Petrov, injured but alive, out to the snowy streets of Leningrad just as the roof finally gave way.
The physical cause and effect are clear, but what’s the deal with Ivan? Why would he risk himself in this way? Unless you’re a psychopath, you can intuit an answer and discern in Ivan’s action a recognizable guiding priority: saving brother over personal safety.
This priority, in the abstract, is a value.
Values reveal not only how things happen but why. Value with cultural resonance and durability in a world of limited choices, and imminent dissolution, when enmeshed with story, can address even the greatest existential noodle scratchers.
For this reason, for the majority of human history the best stories were reserved for religious texts. These texts effectively demonstrated the power of certain values in action and were, as a consequence, satisfying stories that were told again and again. As information has become more static and accessible, stories of all types have proliferated, but the great ones are still built around values and principles.
"Star Wars" and the Gospel According to Luke appeal to the same human disquiet about uncertainty – the same dissatisfaction with a world in decay – by appealing to values that feel eternal. A great story strikes a bell that resonates across the vast expanse of forever and reveals how, through our values, we are connected and important.
Holding It All Together
Human intelligence has allowed at least a partial understanding of the scale and direction of the universe toward an ultimate end. Story helps us manage this overwhelming scale by presenting ideas that resonate with our understanding of truth beyond the confines of our too-brief time on earth. (These truths are also illusions, but what’s the fun in that?)
So, the next time you are face-to-face with the blank page, ask yourself this: What part of my mind, common across culture and history, will help the reader understand her place in impermanence? Or, to put it another way: What experience can I relate that illustrates to the other monkeys that my tree, for now at least, is a safe place to wait out the long night ahead?
Answer this, then tirelessly pursue your writing before it all falls apart.