I talk about myself online a lot. I write a journal and I tweet aplenty and one of the things that is an important part of my life, which people have asked about, is Narrative Belief. I was raised in the Uniting Church and then left in my late teen years, evolving into an angry atheist by the time I was in university. Since then I’ve grown in a lot of ways, including coming back to seeing the value of the religion I had, even if I cannot convince myself to believe in its dogma. These days I try to use the ideas, practices, and tools available to me to not only make my own life more meaningful but also to help those around me engage in their own lives in ways that are meaningful to them. Narrative Belief is a key element of that, especially considering the primarily secular nature of the communities I engage with. So I thought I would put together a little primer on Narrative Belief for those who are interested.
Narrative Belief is a belief or form of belief that you engage with intentionally for the purposes of enhancing your own life with narrative despite knowing and understanding that it is not factually/logically/empirically true.
While my wife and I know that Santa Claus does not exist, we act as if he does at Christmas. While I see no reason to think that a higher power actually exists, I still pray to one in times of distress or times of comfort. My wife does not think that tarot cards can predict the future but she still draws one every morning to prepare her for her day.
This is specifically distinct from faith, which is continuing to believe that something IS true in the face of evidence against it or a lack of evidence for it.
Narrative Belief is also distinct from Nominal Belief; belief held for the purposes of identity, which a person might not consider to be literally true if pressed but of which the person considers themselves a believer regardless. Because they are primarily held for the purposes of identity or community membership nominal beliefs don’t need to be deeply questioned by the holder. In this way the function of the belief, and the understanding that the belief is not true, are implicit in Nominal Belief whereas they are explicit in Narrative Belief. Unfortunately the implicit nature of Nominal Belief also leaves it open to manipulation either intentionally or unintentionally by members of the belief community.
The explicit statement of recognising the functional purpose and the lack of truth within Narrative Belief is what makes it both useful and safe. By choosing to say, “I know this isn’t true but I’m going to treat it as if it is for now,” we open ourselves up to the benefits that those beliefs might convey to us without compromising the ways in which our rational mind is capable of protecting us and preventing us from harming others unintentionally.
We already rely on the rationality of our minds to protect us in these sorts of ways almost constantly. We use it to try to make sense of the world as it truly is, because to be unaware of threats or to assume safety where there is none often leads to harm. To this end we have shaped the rationality of our minds into tools like mathematics and the scientific method which allow us to make ever more precise judgements about the world; what is boon and what is bane. But to assume that our minds are purely rational is to fail to examine ourselves critically. Rationality itself is just one of the evolutionary products of a brain that is structured to find and match patterns. There are plenty of other irrational modes of thinking that we employ all the time in our day to day lives as well. We employ them because they take less energy than the high level processing of rationality. We personify and attribute minds to all sorts of complex systems such as the weather or technology. We see faces in random patterns of light and dark. We create stories of victory, defeat, solemnity, and celebration around yearly seasonal cycles. Our brains are shaped in ways that recognise certain kinds of patterns much more easily than others.
Over millennia the thousands of distinct cultures across the globe have worked out innumerable ways of thinking about the different parts of their lives and held on to the ones that were either useful or made their lives richer. Many of these are purely or partly rational. We don’t tend to attribute to gremlins that which we can see is the result of gravity. We don’t say it is our lack of faith that causes us to fall to the ground when we lose our footing from high up. However, the complex physical interactions that caused us to lose our footing in the first place might be opaque enough that we place blame for that onto our old buddy Lucifer. While it’s tempting to dismiss these non-rational beliefs or parts of beliefs as being inferior, we should actually look at why these ideas survive in the memetic pools of culture. Some are simply defensive; they survive by attacking other ideas and defending themselves from retribution. Those tend to be the least valuable to the Narrative Believer. However, many other irrational beliefs serve those who hold them well. They might be a helpful simple model for a complex system that doesn’t need to be fully understood. They might make the lives of those who believe them fuller, more exciting, or more pleasant. They might provide support for some of the psychological needs of the people who believe them who cannot find that support elsewhere. They may provide a powerful placebo effect that is actually effective in changing the believers for the better in some way, such as the removal of pain or anxiety. Just because these beliefs aren’t necessarily based on empirical evidence does not mean they are of no value to secular people at all, in fact, the opposite is true.
Learning to recognise the value of certain beliefs regardless of their rationality and to be able to engage with them opens up a world of possibilities for those who choose to do so. The childish joy of receiving gifts “from Father Christmas” without having to engage in the usual politics around festive gift giving, the separating of troubles and blessings into those within and outside our own control through prayer, the mental preparation and framing of the day that comes with drawing a tarot card are all tangible benefits that I see around me from engaging in irrational beliefs within the safety of a mental sandbox. The point is that I can engage in these beliefs and reap those benefits while still consciously knowing that I can nope out if they push me in a direction that I’m not comfortable with. I’m not going to take any actions that assume that a higher being will hear and respond to my prayer, my wife isn’t going to go out and hurt someone because she thinks that’s what a tarot card says she should do, and no one is going to make stock market investment decisions based on artificial flooding of the toy market by a jolly old arctic hermit.
This has come naturally to me as a person with a long history with roleplaying games and might do too for actors or writers or anyone else who already engages with the process of thinking through someone else’s eyes. For others it may take some practice, but we are powerful empathy machines. The same mechanisms that allow us to benefit from these sorts of stories allow us to learn other stories from those around us if we’re willing to listen and try on their shoes. We don’t have to walk a mile in them, but we can take a few steps and see what it feels like.
The practice of Narrative Belief doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however. One of the important restrictions I place on myself in my practice is to respect the beliefs of the people who do understand them to be true inasmuch as they are not bringing harm to others. When I attend a church service there are certain parts of the proceedings that I do not engage with. Elements of the Christian faith and its practice are specifically centered on the importance of the integrity of the belief and membership in the community of faith. In my practice I would consider taking part in those elements to be disrespectful to those who genuinely hold these beliefs, especially those who I know and care about in that faith community.
Additionally, as a Scottish Australian woman I specifically make a point to only borrow directly from cultures that are within the broad European mixing pot of which my heritage is a part. I avoid borrowing directly from parts of other cultures because I usually don’t know enough to understand which parts of those traditions should be off limits when practising this form of belief. The times when I do engage with traditions, rituals, or beliefs from other cultures are when I am invited by members of that culture and I do so with an open intent to genuinely learn enough to understand where those lines are drawn.
Similarly, it is important to make sure you’re not misrepresenting your narrative belief as genuine belief. Lying about what you understand the truth of a belief to be is is not only disrespectful to the people who do hold those beliefs genuinely but it’s also pretty obviously stepping into the realm of charlatans and hucksters.
I think it’s important to talk about these limits and boundaries on how we practice Narrative Belief because the whole idea is one of moderation.
The entire point of the exercise of Narrative Belief for me is to enjoy enhancing my life with the spices of superstition, religion, spirituality, and tradition without allowing them to hurt me or those I engage with. I love my narrative beliefs and I’m thankful to have a way to engage with them safely and I really hope that this way of approaching things might help you to safely enrich your own life with the full depth of thousands of years of human culture. In fact, I pray that it does.
At the end of 2016 the world looks like an absolute mess, thank the stars the Millennials are here to fix it.
Hundreds of thinkpieces have been written on the indolence and selfishness of Millennials as a part of a longstanding tradition of the criticising “the young people” and more than enough work has been done to show the nonsense of the claims these pieces make, especially by showing that they are a part of a longstanding tradition of complaining about “the young people.”
I think the one aspect of these complaints worth examining though is the feeling of an impending sense of doom. Though this can simply be explained in part by viewing the past through nostalgia coloured glasses, there is no doubt that the young are increasingly experiencing this sense of dread as well. The world is a lot bleaker than the one we grew up in and as adults it seems like we face apocalypse from every corner, maybe because we do.
Strauss-Howe generational theory posits that American civilisation specifically or Western Civilisation overall moves in cycles like waves upon a beach. Civilisation reaches a cultural high where all strive towards common goals and unity, experiences and awakening where individuals desire freedom from the bonds of civic unity, goes through an unravelling as the threads that hold society together start to come apart, and then falls into a crisis wherein the situation becomes so dire that eventually people must stand and fight together, save the day, and build a new and better tomorrow, which starts the cycle again with a new civilisational high. Each of these is roughly matched with a generation who grows up in one period and, influenced by it, matures in the next, eventually retiring into the third. These generation archetypes are the Artists who mature in a cultural high, the Prophets who are adults during the awakening, the Nomads whose time is the unravelling, and the Hero generation who must do the hard work during a crisis.
This pattern or cycle takes just over the length of an average human lifespan so that the lessons of one stage in the cycle pass from living memory as that stage re-approaches.
According to Strauss & Howe, we exited the Unravelling stage of postmodernism and the Culture Wars around 2004/2005 which means the last ten years have been the building blocks of a crisis. The last Hero generation who had to deal with a Crisis were the G.I. Generation whose challenge was the Second World War.
With the the wars of the United States in the Middle East, the Great Recession and now the rise and election of a bigoted racist demagogue it’s pretty easy to see why the Millennial Generation is classed by the Strauss-Howe theory as the next Hero Generation. We are going to need to be.
Millennials have been criticised as lazy and obsessed with social media and frivolous novelty. What I think that actually means is that we are a generation who has grown up learning to use technology to amplify their hard work, connect with one another, and exercise radical inventiveness and ingenuity, which is exactly how we will fight the oncoming battles and rise to a new and better tomorrow.
Apologies to Strauss & Howe for butchering your carefully crafted work to try and provide a small amount of hope in a slightly dire time.
I want to take a moment to put down some thoughts I’ve had about games and violence recently. In particular I want to respond to some interesting definitions of the two by Mike Rugnetta and Chris Crawford and have a look at what kind of discussion we can have when we look at them together.
I spent most of yesterday trying to find a game. Not a specific game just any game that would fit the criteria for what I was craving. I was searching for a specific experience. Half the problem is that I’ve built myself a comfortable nest from xubuntu, dockbarx, conky and kupfer and Steam on linux has convinced me that now I don’t even need to leave that for gaming. However the specificity of my desires and budget constraints did mean that the limitations of the library of linux games hampered my search. Wine and Play-On-Linux have, thankfully allowed me to broaden my search to other titles and at the moment I’m trying out Elder Scrolls Online. Why that particular choice? Partially because it apparently runs pretty well under Wine and has no ongoing subscription fee, but mostly because of it’s character creation.
The experience that I’d been missing for a while is that of creating a character, statting her out, choosing skills, playing as her and developing her through advancement through her story. I realised I haven’t really played that experience since Skyrim and that experience is an important one to me. 2013’s Tomb Raider was hugely valuable because I’ve always looked up to Lara and that game made her so accessible as a real person that it does remind me that we can choose games where we identify with a static main character but creating a character from scratch and playing as them is a form of self expression. As a person who struggles with identity both at a gender level and in a broader sense playing games where I can shape my character’s image and act as them is as soothing as any other form of artistic creation. Often my own creativity operates at an abstract, intellectual, structural level, devoid of personality and narrative and I can get lost in those clouds but when I sit down to play games like Skyrim, Fallout or even WoW I can connect with the the person I’m making and being. The ability to adjust my character’s appearance with ease allows me to talk to myself about myself through that imagery. When I choose my character’s strengths and weaknesses I tell a story, saying “this is what is important to me” and that story can be different each time, but always valuable. Playing as that character validates their existence. It says “yes you can exist, have a story and be valuable in a form you create or choose” and for people who are living in circumstances where they are not afforded the luxury of being themselves, that can be the difference between someone believing that “it gets better” or choosing what looks like the only other option. My WoW character is Violace, a forsaken fire mage/engineer and she has been so important to me growing up as a symbol of my own ability to be intimidating, chaotic and feminine while finding community outside the narrative of “normal life” and I have failed to be invested in any of my other characters in that world because hers is the story that is most important to me there. But at the moment I need a new space to tell new stories about myself to myself, so it’s time to look at what games will let me tell those stories.
To those of you out there designing games with deep customizable character creation, thankyou. Allowing players to shape who we play as is an important feature that allows us to craft our own stories and self-empower which can literally save lives. Additionally, I’d like to issue a challenge: So far in all my searching I’ve not found a single game that completely eschews a binary sex/gender choice for a slider or similar mechanic. Why not allow us to adjust the position of a character’s masculinity/femininity on a spectrum and choose pronouns/voices/etc from a set after that? The representation this would allow for intersex and non-binary folks would be incredibly powerful and would allow for a way more diverse range of interesting characters.
As my appearance has become more feminine over the last year or so thanks to a combination of a safe environment and a lack of employment related dress-codes, a bunch of people have been asking me what words and gender pronouns they should use to refer to me. To most of those people I’ve said “I’m not sure yet, I’ll let you know if anything changes” which is mostly accurate. Really I’ve had a fairly good idea of what my preferred pronouns are for a long time but there are a lot of other factors to consider other than just my preferences and being very aware of those has made me avoid saying one thing or another. Also, it’s incredibly intimidating to have this kind of discussion about your identity and internal feelings publicly.
Although it may seem like it a lot of the time, gender isn’t black and white but rather a complex space with an infinite number of shades of gray and every colour of the rainbow in between. The fact that our language makes us choose which box (male/female) a person fits in makes us forget two very important things. Firstly, that not only is the person we’re talking about a complex individual who has a limitless number of presentations, emotions, roles and relationships. Secondly, that the box itself contains a mind bogglingly large and diverse group of other such complex individuals. Ultimately these questions come down to what feels most comfortable and causes the least friction, both socially and internally. I’m aware of my own complexity although I’m unlikely to ever fully understand all of myself I feel like I’m at a point where I can, at least for now, ask a favour. If you need to use gendered language to refer to me, I would appreciate it if you’d use feminine terms, that means using she/her/hers/herself as pronouns, etc.
Some people might wonder why this matters, especially in our modern age. In high school my friends and I knew and referred to a lot of people by our nicknames. Partially because we were a group that socialized online a lot outside school hours where we used nicknames anyway and partially because we all thought it was kind of cool. Some people still know me primarily as “Ace” and I forget that some friends have real first names because names like “Bear” and “Cao” are easier to remember. One of those friends from high-school was JT. I’m not sure where it started but that’s what we all called him. It wasn’t a mean nickname like Stumpy or any of the other vaguely diminutive names we used for other friends, it was one of those names that slightly elevated a person, giving them a certain mystique.
A couple of years out of school however, Justin let us know that he didn’t like being called JT, that it made him a little uncomfortable and that he’d rather we just use his actual name. In myself I noticed a kind of urge to keep calling him JT anyway,because it was easier for me to remember and it fitted my own internal narrative better. But I also respected Justin and his feelings so I made the adjustment. Sometimes I make a mistake but I make a point of correcting myself because I don’t want to be known as one of the douchecanoes that keeps calling him JT even though he doesn’t like it.
That’s all I’m asking of you, to put in the effort required to change the words you use because you respect my feelings.
I know this is a complicated topic that is very foreign to a lot of people and I’m really happy to talk to people about it and answer any questions people have to the best of my ability. I don’t have all the answers about the topic or myself but I’m happy to share what I’ve discovered. The one thing I would ask is that you don’t just spring it on me in conversation. Feel free to talk to me about this stuff online where I’ve got time to consider my response or just organise a time with me to come around for a cup of tea and a chat where you can ask away.
Thanks for your attention, I know a wall of text isn’t a lot of fun to read and I appreciate your taking the time to slog through it.
Warmest regards to all of you,