I have written and spoken at length about a comment made on my campus some years ago by the late, great Jewish novelist Chaim Potok. Potok said that day that “we live in a world of colliding maps.” We all construct our own little maps and stories of reality out of the bits and scraps of information we have been given by the circumstances of our history, culture, training, genetics, family, opportunity, and so on. This is our story.
But we find ourselves floating out there in a universe of meaning with no overarching story to make sense of it all. This is actually a universe of no-meaning. We find ourselves at best bumping into one another in this world of colliding maps. We bump into each other sometimes violently, sometimes cordially, but we have little in common in a world of colliding maps. The best we can do, Potok told my students, is to “get to know our own map really well.”
David Brooks made just such a point recently in his column in The New York Times:
We’re all born late. We’re born into history that is well under way. We’re born into cultures, nations, and languages that we didn’t choose. On top of that, we’re born with certain brain chemicals and genetic predispositions that we can’t control. We’re thrust into social conditions that we detest. Often, we react in ways we regret even while we’re doing them.
Even while I chafe at the determinism in these statements, this is all true, isn’t it? There are huge parts of our lives that are beyond our control. We are blessed by some of those circumstances and we may feel cursed by others.
But Brooks goes on to talk about what we can choose. We can choose the stories by which we live. These stories give coherence and meaning to the circumstances of our lives:
But unlike the other animals, people do have a drive to seek coherence and meaning. We have a need to tell ourselves stories that explain it all. We use these stories to supply the metaphysics, without which life seems pointless and empty.
Among all the things we don’t control, we do have some control over our stories. We do have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to make sense of the world. Individual responsibility is contained in the act of selecting and constantly revising the master narrative we tell about ourselves.
The stories we select help us, in turn, to interpret the world. They guide us to pay attention to certain things and ignore other things. They lead us to see certain things as sacred and other things as disgusting. They are the frameworks that shape our desires and goals. So while story selection may seem vague and intellectual, it’s actually very powerful. The most important power we have is the power to help select the lens through which we see reality.
This is a great description of what our chosen narrative does for us. And I like this notion of choosing our stories a lot. But there is something that creeps into Brooks and even Potok that I must push against. The suggestion lurks just beneath the surface that we actually fabricate the stories of meaning we choose to live by.
And I must ask, is it possible there is a narrative out there that actually tells a true story about the world? Can it be that we may actually attach our little stories to a story of what is true and good and beautiful?
As a Christian, I believe there is such a story. I believe God’s big drama for his children swirls about the universe, and we have a choice to tap into its meaning and purpose, its goodness and its beauty. We can choose. We can watch this big drama unfold, this huge story. We can study and reflect on this ancient narrative, full of wonder, full of mystery and beauty, full of meaning. And of course that makes all the difference.