Thursday, March 6, 2008

reading lessons

I want to propose something old that has always been with us, and rephrase it again - mostly for my own benefit. The literary tradition of humanity is enormous, but it is a wealth of knowledge that, is still insufficiently tapped, I think. It isn't necessarily the amount of printed or electronic media that is lacking, it is in how it is accessed and used. A few days ago when I read "To Kill and Elephant", "The Iguana", and "This Pen for Hire" an amazing thing happened. It has happened before though at the time I didn't recognize its significance and potential. First of all, it was a humbling experience to read such great works. I was awed by their ability to communicate the reality of their experiences so well. I really felt a sense of mutual understanding, as though they knew me, without us ever meeting. Second, a phenomenon I can perhaps best describe as entrainment occurs. Before I enter the thoughts and lives of these authors via their stories, I am in the world as I live it, and see things as my mental faculties and processes allow me. Like all people, I have "defense mechanisms" for lack of a better term, and more than a few that have been, frankly, used destructively and habitually. It is difficult to stop avoidance and intellectualization. It is very difficult to stop one's brain and redirect from within (external intervention is another matter), but by entering the mind of another person and following their thoughts and decisions when faced with situations that are familiar to me, my thoughts become entrained with their thoughts and it becomes easier to make decisions as they have, if I am willing to do so. It is a form of education. Stories like these model healthy thinking, and by degrees cause one to even think in a like manner.

As I said earlier, this use of stories has always been with us. The human mind evolved in a cultural context of oral traditions, myths, fables, and religious stories. The strength of religion may be due to its social story telling aspects (like a "Bible club"). Telling stories to children is an important part of their early education. And of course, there are stories that model destructive thinking, but these are usually understood to be cautionary tales (if not strictly for entertainment purposes).

What evidence do I have to support my claim that stories can encourage healthy adaptive thinking and behavior and lessen destructive patterns? After reading "This Pen for Hire" I stayed up all night and finished a big project that I had put off for months. Maybe it was coincidence, or maybe the connection I am drawing is real, but not generalizable in the manner I have outlined here. However, I think I can generalize a connection between stories an thought that is capable of affecting behavior. To this end I want to pay closer attention to stories and the real messages that they contain for today. And record these in journal like fashion to commit to memory. Messages in metaphor like "Shoot not the iguana" - removing a beautiful thing from its context and its beauty fades and disappears. Or when Eric Blair shot the elephant, it died a long torturous death that certainly did not have to happen, though once set in motion could not be stopped. And when Abigail pulled all nighters on average twice a week to finish papers and earn (illegal) money, it makes you realize that maybe one all nighter a week isn't as bad, even if you'd rather not have any.

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