Brian Greene’s latest book Until the End of Time searches for meaning in our universe by connecting prevalent theories on everything from atoms and astronomy to art and angst. Most interesting of all is his analysis of why we tell stories.
What evolutionary utility could arise from following the exploits of imaginary characters facing make-believe challenges in non-existent worlds? (274) Through borrowed eyes protected by the tempered glass of story, we intimately observe an abundance of exotic worlds. And it is through these simulated episodes that our intuition expands and refines, rendering it sharper and more flexible. Through story we internalize a more nuanced sense of how to respond and why, and that intrinsic knowledge guides our future behavior. (279)
Storytelling is our most powerful means of inhabiting other minds. And as a deeply social species, the ability to momentarily move into the mind of another may have been essential in our survival and our dominance. (283) The stories provide a means for experiencing the universe from a perspective that is otherwise unattainable. (284) Through narrative we explore the range of human behavior, from societal expectations to heinous transgressions. We witness the breadth of human motivation, from lofty ambition to reprehensible brutality. (285)
None of which explains my dream of my cat Popo (who died in 1999) as an evil red-eyed monster driving an open-bed truck, wreaking death and destruction while Allen (a friend who I haven’t seen since 1987) careened off in an outboard boat, almost killing sunbathers and then vanished in pile of gravel as my father (who dies in 1989) accused me of plotting to kill my mother (who died this year) because I had a number of pictures of her on my wall when I was only trying to sleep.
I was in a game of cruel tag where you were stabbed with a pen. That made you it. Bryce was far too aggressive and broke the tip of the pen off in my arm. I looked at the ink spreading through my veins and told him that he was way too violent. He just smirked at me before racing off up the stairs. “Beware the Values and Beliefs Committee!”
Bryce’s friends said that he went to get his gun and that I had better leave. It was an odd space, wide open in the center and then winding corridors with doors and passageways off to the side. I needed to go to the bathroom, but they were all closed or occupied. I finally found what looked like a bathroom in the corner, which had a view down the valley, but it was full of people, some my former students, all of them chanting, “Beware the Value and Beliefs committee! Beware the Value and Beliefs committee!”
I pleaded with everyone to leave, but it was a big joke, especially for Tom Hanks. He was photographing everything and mocked me for wanting privacy. The sound of gunfire was everywhere, and everyone ducked and scattered, except for Tom Hanks who continued to mock me. He made it impossible for me to go to the bathroom and so I offered him my camera, complete with zoom lens. Before leaving, he delivered the line perfectly, “The Values and Beliefs Committee, you know, it might sound like a good thing, but it’s just another cloaking device to maintain status quo. Think about that.”
There are so many notes, too many to write down, through the layers, each idea scribbled for the one above, seeking to understand the depths, or just trigger that moment of happiness and stay in that. There was a drunken child wanting to fight everyone, and I kept him in my room before going back up through the city, floating above the crowds, not floating as much as striding, walking in flight, thinking someone would be confounded, and yet none of that happened.And then I was at the rink, tightening my skates for the game, as I took notes, hoping I was in the right layer to remember that I was playing for the Leafs again.