I found myself startled in the 20th chapter, of Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. The chapter was titled “Meaning”, and in it, Harari explains the human tendency to create meaning through stories and how this kind of thinking is flawed.
He begins with the fact that we are story-telling animals who tend to believe that “the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and happy endings. When we look for the meaning of life, we want a story that will explain what reality is all about and what my particular role is in the cosmic drama.”Yuval Noah Harari
This rings true for me in the age of “find your purpose” and “live your passion.” We love the idea that there is some important duty or lofty burden that is ours to bear, and we’re willing to pay thousands of dollars to a life coach to help us find that one special role we are supposed to fulfill. We definitely like a story where we are on our own hero’s quest to find our great purpose in life.
Along with finding your role in the cosmic drama, Harari explains that the other criteria for a meaningful story is that it connects a person to something bigger than themselves.
One example of a meaningful story someone may uphold is the story of making the world a little better during one’s life. I am often guilty of this one. If I can just be a little more like Mother Teresa, I will have lived a meaningful life-or so my story goes. Another type of meaningful story is the story of romance. Finding your true love or soul mate and devoting yourself entirely to that person becomes the sole meaning and purpose of life.
Nationalism too can be a compelling story. The feeling that you belong to the best country in the world and that your purpose on earth is to make your country “great again”, is a story that gives you a role to play and a bigger purpose to pursue. Many of us who have seen the Broadway hit, Hamilton, most likely felt a twinge of patriotism and pride in our country.
And it’s not like it’s wrong to be proud of your country, or to be in love, or to try to do some good in the world. The problem arises when we begin to believe that these stories represent the ultimate truth and sole meaning of life.
Yuval Harari moves on in the chapter to outline some of the popular belief systems that help people understand and feel connected to ultimate reality, and some of the problems he finds with these beliefs.
One widely believed story, or “cosmic drama” as Harari puts it, is the Hinduism and Buddhism theory of reincarnation. In this circular story you have “a fixed and true identity that determines [your] duties in life”, and when you die, your “personal essence” sticks around to continue your story.
“If I am reborn in a new body after the death of my present body, then death is not the end. It’s merely one space between two chapters, and the plot that began in one chapter will carry on into the next.”Yuval Noah Harari
It’s an attractive idea to believe that life is a “never-ending epic”, but the author points out that lengthening one’s personal story doesn’t really make it more meaningful; it just makes it longer.
This reminds me of the old question: Would you drink from the spring of eternal life? I don’t think Harari would as he describes a never-ending life as:
Millions upon millions of times I learn how to walk, I grow up, I fight with my mother-in-law, I get sick, I die–and then I do it all over again. What’s the point?Yuval Noah Harari
Yuval Harari is equally critical of the linear stories of reality we adhere to in the west. In this instance, the story of reality does not cycle back on itself infinitely, but has a clear beginning, middle and end. We see this progression in all three of the western monotheistic religions where God created the world, then gave us laws and perfected men to follow, and if you were properly faithful and followed the rules, you go to an eternal paradise when you die. If not, you end up in hell. The end. Harari critiques the linear story of reality, using Jewish nationalism as an example:
Zionism holds sacred the adventures of about 0.2 percent of humankind and .005 percent of the earth’s surface during a tiny fraction of human history. The Zionist story fails to ascribe any meaning to Chinese empires, to the tribes of New Guinea, and to the Andromeda galaxy, as well as to the countless eons that passed before the existence of Moses, Abraham, and the evolution of apes.Yuval Noah Harari
Despite the seemingly narrow-minded focus of these stories, in a globalized and over-informed world, people’s identities and even entire social systems have been built on the foundations of these stories. People are often afraid of persecution if they doubt the story of their society. Also, it can be scary to question reality because if “ indeed the story is false, then the entire world as we know it makes no sense.”
However, Harari is willing to send society into chaos by claiming:
To the best of our scientific understanding, none of the thousands of stories that different cultures, religions, and tribes have invented throughout history are true.” They are all just human inventions….The universe just does not work like a story.”Yuval Noah Harari
This sounds a lot like the Taoist understanding that “the way that can be named is not the true way.” It’s a concept I’ve come across often and across the world religions, yet for some reason I felt startled by his sweeping dismissal of the world’s great stories. Perhaps this is because despite having a healthy dose of skepticism about any one religion claiming to be the ultimate truth, I still secretly hope to find some kind of story to raise my children with, and I keep thinking that if I read more spiritual books or study theology harder, I’ll eventually locate the right story for me that gives my life meaning.
But Harari emphasizes the problem with this kind of thinking in people like me:
They believe that there is some eternal essence somewhere, and if only they can find it and connect to it, they will be completely satisfied. This eternal essence is sometimes called God, sometimes the nation, sometimes the soul, sometimes the authentic self, and sometimes true love–and the more people are attached to it, the more disappointed and miserable they become when they fail to find it.Yuval Noah Harari
I can relate to a feeling of disappointment for not landing on that one flawless story that encompasses perfectly that eternal essence that I seek. Furthermore, I see many in my generation also searching for a meaningful story in the ’“supermarket of stories” that we’ve set up. They’re wandering around in the endless supply of information, picking, choosing, and combining pieces of stories that sound good at the time. Yet many feel the same futility and disappointment I have felt in the search for a perfect story, so they decide to resign themselves to the libral mythology that Harari describes as: “there is no divine script, and nothing outside me can give meaning to my life. It is I who imbue everything with meaning through my free choices and through my own feelings.”
Thankfully, we can “follow our bliss” and rely on our own free will to think, feel and desire whatever gives our life meaning. This is where many of us reside today. However, Harari reveals that our “desires are not the magical manifestations of free choice but are rather the product of biochemical processes (influenced by cultural factors that are also beyond our control).” He explains that although we are free to pursue our desires, we are not free to choose what we desire. We are then left with nothing since all the world’s stories are false and free will does not exist. So what now?
Harari’s answer is mindfulness.
For some reason, and despite the fact that mindfulness has been touted in every yoga class and therapy room across the country for decades, Harari’s solution feels spot on and refreshing in the context of his book. We really only have right now. No matter what story guides me in my everyday life, I am still here in this chair with an ache in my arm on a warm summer morning in a quiet house feeling peaceful. Soon I will be bombarded by three emotional children, and my feelings and sensations will change.
The story of meaning that I choose doesn’t help me govern or change the fact that my emotions, desires and thoughts are in constant flux throughout the day. It might give me a temporary sensation of relief to know that I’m going to heaven someday, but it would probably be more practical in my day-to-day life to notice the way my own mind works and to do the hard work of getting it in control. Harari discloses that “the most important thing I realized was that the deepest source of my suffering is in the patterns of my own mind.”
Harari concludes his chapter with,
“The big question facing human life isn’t “what is the meaning of life?” but rather “ how do we stop suffering?”Yuval Noah Harari
He believes that once we give up our fictional stories and observe ourselves and reality for what it is, “nothing can make [us] miserable.” I wonder what would happen if we stopped focusing so much on our own personal stories. Where would we turn our attention if we weren’t constantly striving for success, accumulating new things, and sharing the story of ourselves on social media? I think we’ve avoided our minds long enough. It’s time to step away from the age of stories and into the age of mindfulness.
- Let’s think about the stories that make up who we are, and begin to loosen our tight grip on these stories. I’m thinking of my political leanings and wondering if I could release some of my cherished political stories that I identify so strongly with and open myself to other perspectives.
- Harari meditates two hours a day. Maybe we could start with literally one minute, where we close our eyes right now and breathe as this strange human creature. Push all thoughts away and just be here, right now, a body existing in this particular place and time.
For more wise words from this devoted meditation practitioner check out his book.
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