(This reflection is partly based on Neil Gaiman’s essay about the power of cautionary questions, and how speculative fiction enlarges our humanity. I focus on one section of the essay, but the entire piece is gold, and I highly recommend you read excerpts from it here.)
In his essay, Neil Gaiman touches on the importance of recognizing the multiplicity of interpretations to any story. He says:
If someone tells you what a story is about, they are probably right.
If they tell you that that is all the story is about, they are very definitely wrong.
Any story is about a host of things. It is about the author; it is about the world the author sees and deals with and lives in; it is about the words chosen and the way those words are deployed; it is about the story itself and what happens in the story; it is about the people in the story; it is polemic; it is opinion.
An author’s opinions of what a story is about are always valid and are always true: the author was there, after all, when the book was written. She came up with each word and knows why she used that word instead of another. But an author is a creature of her time, and even she cannot see everything that her book is about.”
Our lives are filled with stories. Each person we meet is a story, made up of a hundred thousand experiences and thoughts and feelings all jumbled together and then interpreted. That interpretation is their self-identity--the way they see themselves and the behaviors and actions that they believe they are capable of, given that identity.
But again, it's just an interpretation, a set of self-imposed limitations. I have my own self-story, my interpretation of who I am and what I am all about. Others will make up their own interpretations and stories about me. When they interact with me in a way that adheres to their story but not mine, well, it can cause misunderstandings. Those points of tension are opportunities for change, however, chances for me to renegotiate my identity. It's a fluid and changing thing, after all. Identity is performed, developed, and maintained daily by my actions and choices. Any one of those moments could lead to something new.
Similarly, our beliefs are stories: stories about why and how the world is the way it is. The various ideas that we believe in--religion, culture, the nation, all of these imagined communities that can cause as much beauty as they can trouble--are "simply" stories. I say "simply" because of course it isn't that simple at all--those beliefs rule us, determine who we are in the world, shape our lives, guide how we interact with others. Those beliefs become our blinders, inhibiting us from seeing the world in a different way.
What we believe is what we see. I can prove any belief, find all of the evidence I need to convince myself that I've uncovered the Truth, just by focusing my attention and conveniently ignoring the situations and facts that don't agree with me. What I see then reinforces what I already believe.
But again, these beliefs are just an interpretation. None of them are True. But to the extent that beliefs impact our lives, they certainly are real.
How can we negotiate all of these conflicting, interpreted belief systems? Books are a great place to start. In reading books, we can take on the personas and lives of others with the flip of a page or the swipe of a finger. We can live a thousand different lives from the comfort of our own homes, and emerge changed, even if just slightly, by the perspectives we don in our reading.
I try to hold my beliefs loosely. What I believe today will not be what I believe in a year, a month, a week. I don't think this is a bad thing.
I examine my beliefs periodically, see if they hold up to reality, see if they empower me or limit me needlessly. I look to others, and try not to begrudge them their different beliefs. People will create meaning as they see fit; I try to be at peace with the contradictions, and see what I can learn from them.
I cannot claim access to the Truth, except in that I have access to books, to people, to differing perspectives, and to diverse belief systems, all of which expand my humanity and challenge my way of thinking and being. Who I am is constantly in flux, an endless renegotiation as new experiences and interactions color my life in new ways. Who we are as a community, a nation, a species, is also an emerging process, rather than a finite and foregone conclusion. These moments in history, when beliefs and value systems are pitted against one another, are opportunities to redefine who we are and where we as a people are going.
If we take time to look through each other's eyes, read through other perspectives, who knows what wisdom we could gain?