Historically, there was something like a Trojan war, maybe even several Trojan wars in fact, but the one Homer wrote about in the eighth century B.C. is the one that fascinates us, because it is fiction. Archaeologists and historians doubt that any Trojan war began because someone named Paris kidnapped someone named Helen from under the nose of her Greek husband, or that it was a big wooden horse filled with soldiers that finally won the day. You can find no trace of them in the diggings in northwest Turkey in what might have been the real Troy. But who would give up the Iliad for the historical record? Legends, myths, dreams—all of it is grist for the mill. Nothing is excluded, certainly not history. Historians and fiction writers alike decide what is relevant to their enterprise and what isn’t. Some facts are brought to light, others left in darkness. History undergoes a constant process of revision. Reality is amenable to any construction placed upon it.1
Like historians and novelists, we too construe our own histories as we see them—and realities get created accordingly. Here’s how it works: Something happens. We simultaneously assess and interpret what happened—assign meaning, categorize importance, draw conclusions, identify action to be taken (or not), form opinions that linger. This melding or collapse between what happens and the meaning we assign to it happens so instantaneously that we somehow lose all memory that what happened and how we hold it were two independent and separate occurrences.
Consider there are two (ontological) domains of distinction in our day-to-day living: one in which life shows up as an experience, and another in which life shows up as a representation of, or a concept about that experience. We essentially live in the collapse between the two when our experience invariably devolves into a representation of the experience—memories, concepts, and descriptions of life (which are not life, but descriptions of it). We then experience subsequent events through these already existing conceptual frameworks. A conceptually-shaped experience reinforces the concept that shaped it. The reinforced concept more fully shapes the experience. The more fully shaped experience reinforces the concept some more and it goes round-and-round like this. Thus its name: the vicious circle.
Another way of saying it is: When something happens and we make whatever assessments we make at the time, we believe and think them valid. We think our conclusions are epiphanies of sorts—kind of indisputable, bottom-line truths. We see reality and ourselves in terms of that truth—as if it were us, not something separate or outside of us. We also map our behavior and future experiences onto it. Our identity, our persona, who we are, and how we see ourselves gets reinforced again and again—a “vicious circle” indeed, because of its relentless and mechanical nature. What’s disempowering in this vicious circle thing is not the interpretation or meaning we immediately assign, but rather the collapsing of those interpretations with whatever it is that happened. It is in the collapse that realities get set.
Those “realities” become the stuff and story of our lives. We can spice up or water down our stories, tell the long or short version, add drama or subtlety. Regardless of how clever we are, or what new or different set of circumstances we put into the vicious circle, what we get out of it is only what is gotten out of a vicious circle—varied, yes, but it is essentially more of the same. While we might think our stories new and unique, it inevitably turns out that there are only two or three basic themes playing themselves out over and over, often in ingenious ways.
Now, there’s nothing actually wrong with stories. In fact, I love the richness, the tapestry, the depth of our stories—the moments we savor, the experiences we share, really are the stuff of our lives. If we think for a moment about those most precious people in our lives, each of them has a special story that’s uniquely their own–how we met our spouses, a time when a friend’s kindness made a difference, something we heard or saw that was so hilarious we nearly cried. It’s hard to imagine a life without the intricacies and intimacies of those moments—it would be a bit dull and boring.
Our stories represent the richness of what it means to be human—there is a power and validity, a value in them, but not when they’re confused with the presence of life. (Being in the presence of something is, obviously, quite different than being in the concept of it.) Which brings us to what we might call the downside of stories—the side where our interpretations keep us stuck, where we get into the vicious circle.
When we begin to see inside the mechanical nature of this vicious circle, its bankruptcy becomes apparent. It would be great if the slate were clean and we could be determining the principles by which we were going to fill the slate, but in a vicious circle no intentionality, and no created purpose can exist. Vicious circles are formed in reaction to something— mechanically, not intentionally.
When we ask ourselves the question, “Does my life matter, do I make a difference,” the only possible answer in the vicious circle is “I doubt it.” It’s not that we can’t or don’t make a difference, it’s just that in that particular circularity or the swirl, if you will, of the vicious circle, there is no space for anything to make a difference. And when we become aware of the bankruptcy, we would more than likely go about attempting to change it—but “change” only alters the circumstances in the same circle. While there’s no fixing it in the vicious circle, in the recognition of it being at play we can begin to “uncollapse” the two worlds and see ourselves separate from it. By recognizing the bankruptcy, we have a say in the matter of who we are, and the room to create and design our lives.
Knowing our stories are an interpretation (no more true or false than another interpretation), and that that’s not who we are, produces an opening, an access, a portal to a third domain—the domain of being. Possibility exists in the third domain. domain of being and isn’t available in the other two domains. It is here, in this domain, that we are able to create something from nothing—an existential act, and one that can hold both the experience and the circumstances. Possibility moves things around until our experience and our circumstances are a match for the possibility we’ve created. Distinguishing that is transformational. It shifts the horizon of what’s possible.
1 E.L. Doctorow, “Notes on the History of Fiction,” The Atlantic Monthly, Fiction Issue, 2006.