The Story Spell
Railing at the Sky:
Why isn't the World the way I think it should be?
I read a piece on childrearing recently that defined the "ages of magical thinking" as being from 0 to somewhere between 6 years and 8 years old.
This kind of magical thinking is characterized by the belief that things 'just are.' Food, warmth, comfort, appear as if from nowhere. Very young children have no conception of things coming from anywhere, but soon begin to associate communications with consequences.
"I cry, I am fed."
Magical Thinking is the belief that the crying is the cause of the feeding.
We encourage this sort of thinking in younger children because doing so encourages clear communication. I constantly asked both my children 'how do you ask nicely?' so that they would frame their demands as requests, but also so that they would make their requests clearly.
In "magical" cause and effect, the child (we are told) believes that making a demand "conjures" something from nothing. At some point (the developmental psychologist tells us), this is overtaken by the growing perception that there are more complex processes at work. That something cannot come from nothing; that the refrigerator isn't a cornucopia: once a week, someone refills it.
Magic is Sophisticated
Personally I think this idea that the child thinks something is conjured from nothing is overcomplicated. Magic is metaphysical; sophisticated. I don't think babies care about anything being conjured. I don't thing they think about anything further than cause and effect.
That's the reason toddlers start casting spells.
Parents the world over, to varying degrees and using various protocols, try to teach their children to communicate politely. Politeness is a cultural construct that has endured because it works. Although it has acquired a baggage of connotations of class, education, nationality, underneath, politeness is about clarity of communication. By formalizing the exchange of request and assent, it gives all parties time to consider and understand the nature of the request and the consequences of assenting. Politeness makes communication easier; less stressful. So we teach it.
The first thing children learn about politeness? Because of the way we teach it, they learn that if they find the correct form of words, they will get what they want.
That is indistinguishable from a magic spell.
The Game of Consequences
From the age when children start forming their own sentences, we start teaching them about consequences.
Consequences are a step beyond casting a spell with politeness. The politeness spell may have one of two outcomes. If I ask nicely for a second helping of desert, either I will get a second helping, or I will not.
But some situations have unknown outcomes, or worse, probabilistic outcomes, or even worse than that, far future outcomes.
Unknown outcomes occur as soon as you ask a stranger a question; step outside the protocols of your immediate family and things might not operate in the same way. Ask mummy for a chocolate at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way, and she will give you one. Ask the woman at the store to give you a chocolate, and she may not reply to you at all. Instead she asks your mummy, "is it all right to give him a chocolate?"
Probabilistic outcomes can be harmless; the sky is full of dark clouds. It might rain. But it might not. Probabilistic outcomes can be harmful; run out suddenly into the road and you might be struck by a moving vehicle. But there might be no vehicle.
Far future outcomes are first encountered with things like diet and hygiene: "brush your teeth or they'll all fall out... eventually."
The game of consequences is all about guessing a future outcome when the result isn't a simple binary yes/no.
The game of consequences is taught by storytelling.
if ... then ... else
I'm a story hunter. I hunt stories. I've found loads of them. I find them everywhere. Whole goddam world is lousy with stories.
The most basic cautionary advice for avoiding dangers is an if/then/else statement that is the template for most stories.
If you are walking along the road then don't suddenly run across to the other side else the driver of a vehicle might not be able to stop in time and squash you flat.
This is a story.
Sophistication = Complexity
As we get older, the stories become more complex, and to play the game of consequences we have to combine different stories with our experiences in order to try to guess the possible outcomes of completely new situations. New to us, and even new to the world.
That's why we need, desire, and consume fiction. It's practice. It's learning. And we repurpose stories constantly in order to find out the consequences of highly complex situations. That's sophisticated thinking.
But it's still magical, sometimes.
Can Stories Remake the World?
Sometimes, in philosophical, moral or ethical discussions, I catch myself describing the world as if it were the way I think it ought to be. Here's a couple of examples:
- People are getting less and less racist.
- The younger generation is much less concerned about gender and sexuality
Those statements sound like observations, and there is certainly some truth in them. They also don't sound much like a toddler's magic spell. But they are a description of the world the way I would like it to be. And I believe that by spreading stories about the way the world should, you influence it to become that way. If nothing else than by reassuring people who think that way already that it's okay to think that way, and that it's okay to talk about it.
The Hidden Power of Stories
It's the hidden power of stories, which is routinely harnessed to manipulate you in anything from political propaganda to the feudal structure of the workplace to advertizing, to press scaremongering and sensationalism.
That hidden power can also be harnessed to do good in the world.
The more stories you tell about the world the way it ought to be, the easier, less anxious, less stressful it will become for people to change it.