Stories exist because of a bizarre mathematical concept
No story is complete enough to end all stories.
Imagine stories are your car.
You and I are driving around in our parent’s car. It’s not a bad metaphor (trust me) since stories are how we get around. Human beings can’t even see without a story guiding our perceptions. Most stories are ancient. So, not exactly our parent’s car, but our parent’s parent’s parent’s car.
For an idea of what it’s like to not have a car (story), try taking a massive dose of LSD. Suddenly, you have no frameworks to guide your perceptions. You’re “free.” Freedom can be terrifying.
Our trusty car gets us around but is, admittedly, getting old. The AC sometimes stops working. The brakes are a little squishy. The motor is making a weird clicking noise.
Part of us knows we’ll either have to get a new car or fix this one up.
How do we do that?
Infinity always sneaks into your garden
Even if we let our parent’s car sit in the garage, entropy would still “get” it. Time passing makes the rubber crack and the metal rust.
The same thing is always happening to our collective myths. Unless we constantly update our stories and tell new ones, they get rusty and begin to fail us. Not because they weren’t crafted well—but just by the mere ticking of a clock.
Storytellers come along and refresh our collective unconscious. We do it with movies, books, and maybe even TikToks.
It’s terrifying that things don’t last. I used to stay away at night, sweating about my impermanence. I will die. That’s about the time I had a phase of being completely obsessed with Joseph Campbell.
I marveled at how much information is packed into old stories. There is something comfortingly permanent about what is remembered for thousands of years. Ancient stories (when understood) are fundamental inventions like “the wheel,” and new stories are (most likely) more like “seat warmers.”
With that in mind, let’s visit a very old story: Genesis.
We open on a garden, beautiful and perfect. “Paradise” literally means “walled garden.” Like the yin-yang symbol, the walls represent the known (order), and the garden represents the unknown (chaos). When in perfect harmony, you get paradise. Neat.
Enter the snake. Why would there be a snake in God’s perfect garden? Because no matter how beautiful your structure is, it is finite. The snake symbolizes the infinite bleeding into the finite.
To add the original metaphor here, no matter how German your car is, it will eventually rust.
For another example, infinity “leaks” into otherwise good physics. For instance, general relativity doesn’t work in extreme places like black holes. These extremes (snakes) in our theoretical “garden” are telling us that our theories are not complete and perhaps will never be.
The snake is the relentless invasion of infinity into the finite.
In other words, there is always a snake in the garden.
Stories are the impossible bridge
Stories help us be “reborn” into a world filled with snakes that want to eat us. They fix our cars and manufacture new ones.
Stories guide us away from the infinite, where everything is and nothing matters, to a new and improved garden. This process is never-ending.
Here’s a strange quality of infinity: a shape with three corners is a triangle. One with four is a square. One with infinite corners is… what? A circle. A circle with infinite corners has no corners at all. Infinity sneaks back to zero. It’s hard to convey this perfectly, but that’s what stories are like. Happily, that’s also what the wheels on your car are like.
Another way of thinking about it is dreams (which are like stories). At night, you dream up strange scenarios to help you deal with the idiosyncrasies of your life. They help you to transcend your old patterns (which are you) by dipping you into the infinite, and somehow, you come out on the other end updated. If you don’t dream, you go crazy.
Like Einstein did to update Newtonian physics, a future scientist may “dream” up updated general relativity to include black holes. We can’t imagine that yet—we don’t know the story.
Stories are our only bridge to the impossible infinite.
Stories may have cosmic significance
Here’s another odd quality of physics: light does not experience time as it travels through space. So, when you look at a star, that light would have never left that star if you hadn’t looked at it, even if it emitted (from your perspective) millions of years ago.
This idea was proposed by the great physicist John Wheeler.
So, either your entire life is already determined like clockwork, or your consciousness (read: your story) plays a role in the creation of the universe. Wheeler believed it was the latter. And, to be clear, this isn’t a fringe “woo-woo” idea. Well-respected physicists think this way.
Not only does this suggest the importance of the story you tell yourself, but it also indicates the meaning of our lives is because of the fleetingness and not the fixation on the permanent. In other words, it’ll never be here again, so enjoy it
The other day, I was talking to a friend who was feeling some existential dread, saying, “I just keep learning how small and pointless we all are in the face of the universe.” He used to be Christian, but he just can’t seem to feel the sense of awe he felt as a kid. Science, in all its power, stripped away his wonder.
As we discover the grandness of the universe and everything going on like clockwork without us, we begin to wonder if we “matter.“ The question is so pressing that it haunts just about everybody I talk to.
People are afraid their lives have no meaning.
Why are we going to school? Why are we going to the dentist? We weren’t here 1 million years ago, and none of us will be here in 1 million years. What’s the point?
Science (rightly) makes us question the stories that have built our “cars” since we became self-conscious. Of course, that hurts. We need our cars to get around, imperfect as they might be.
If scientific facts make the divine seem mundane, you just need to look deeper. Or, you need to feel deeper.
Here’s a fun experiment: would you ask yourself whether your life mattered if you were in love? What if you had a newborn baby? Obviously, it’s silly to assume that feeding your baby is meaningless because it won’t matter in 1 million years.
I think (and I can’t exactly prove it) that the stories we tell have real implications on the fate of the entire universe.
Just because the myths and religions of our ancestors aren’t literally true (the world is not 6,000 years old, clearly) doesn’t mean they are phenomenologically true. You can feel them.
There is a whole universe of meaning under the surface—a land of archetypes (angles and demons, if you like) that swirls around our consciousness. They imprint on our world in the form of stories.
Call that infinity, God, or spirit; whatever you want.
Just don’t try to say it’s not real.
No, you can’t measure them like you might measure your desk. Many things (America, Coca-cola, and AA) are “real,” although they only exist in our heads.
The archetypal (story) realm might be the most real place there is. It will last much longer than anything material in your life, that’s for sure. It will last longer than you.
But your children’s children’s children will feel the ripples you created in the realm of story.
What’s the meaning of our lives, then?
To tell better stories than our parents.
It is of cosmic significance to do so.
Thanks for reading,
Send this to someone looking for meaning
Here’s what I’m reading:
The Sand Chronicles by Hugh Howey
Reading the famous “Wool” series by Hugh when I was a freshman in college was a big reason I started writing science fiction. It was an early influence on my writing style. “Sand” is a good entry in his work, and I’m excited that part two just dropped.
Quotes I’m pondering:
“The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” — Søren Kierkegaard
“Any foolish boy can stamp on a beetle, but all the professors in the world cannot make a beetle.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
“If a book sucks, you can stop reading it. Just wanted you to know that.” — Ryan Holiday