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Max Roytenberg: Man, The Storyteller

by Max Roytenberg, Sept 20, 2016

 I don’t know about you, but I can’t help telling stories about myself. To myself and to others. My theory is, if I tell a story I like often enough, I will end up by believing it. Seeing my fervent belief, then it is possible that other people will begin to believe the story as well. That kind of stuff is catchy among people of the right sort. And, of course, that is the ultimate purpose of the exercise. If other people believe it, I don’t have to tell the story to myself anymore. They tell it to me. It is a reality.


So, I began by telling myself I was a hero. I could accomplish anything in the world I set my mind to. Indeed, I thought that maybe I was the real Messiah and that I alone could save the world. The nitty-gritty of life brought me back to earth, and I decided in the end to settle for doing the best I could with what I, an ordinary mortal, had to offer. I think that was a good decision, don’t you? But I still had a sneaking suspicion I was a hero, and that I could be really good at whatever I tried to do. Trying to learn to play the violin proved to be a fly in that ointment. Okay, okay! But I could really try and be really good at some other things. Basketball at five foot six proved to be another fiasco. Did I ever tell you I tried out for the high school football team and got cut after a ten-minute tryout?


Still, I did continue on with my stories. I went to University and afterward told myself and others that I was an economist. What did I know? A bunch of nothing! But people actually believed me and paid me for that, and promoted me to lofty positions. Obviously I got people to believe that story. I got other people to take me on as a supermarketeer. Fooled them again, but increased profits hugely on the way. I then proved to actually be a messiah to thousands of egg producers in Canada. Get cracking, I said, and they did. And then I told them I was a management consultant in marketing, and they paid me scads of money and sent me round the world to give advice. Did I change the world? Not at all! Finally, I told them I was that worst of all things, a lobbyist, and I proved to be a blessing unto the nation in my small way. So my life has been the saga of a whole series of stories that I have told to myself and to others, getting the others to believe me. And I haven’t even told you about the lies I have told in my private life. Now I’m telling people I am a writer. Ha Ha!


Well, here’s the big news. It turns out that telling stories and getting lots of people to believe them, is one of the crucial secrets behind the success of humans on this planet.* There have been human-like creatures on this planet for about two hundred and fifty thousand years. But it is only with the emergence of Homo Sapiens, about seventy thousand years ago, that conditions on this planet changed drastically in a relatively short time in cosmic terms. Different from the Neanderthal and the Erectus, Sapiens carried mutations that gave it a crucial edge. Sapiens had the ability to learn in ways that the others did not. And as important, they had the ability to generate ideas, to imagine stories, and by believing them, to turn them into reality.


Many animals have the ability to learn to at least a degree. And many animals have the ability to cooperate to accomplish tasks that an individual alone cannot accomplish. But there seems to be limitations to the size of such cooperating groups. These groupings tend to be much smaller among the lower orders, but even among humanoids, according to anthropologists, group numbers did not exceed one hundred and fifty. Sapiens, however, were different.


Some Sapiens were able to imagine stories and get larger groups to believe in them. They learned the trick of getting large numbers of Sapiens to coalesce around those stories. Originally all of us were hunter-gatherers. The idea of a tribal loyalty could allow larger groups to cooperate to achieve common goals like hunting herds of small animals or the large animals which dominated the early world. The giant mammoths and mastodons were hunted to extinction by large groups of humans cooperating. As were other humanoids who could not compete. 


When early humans shifted to agriculture and domesticated animals, they learned to group together to resist raiding hunter-gatherers who had themselves banded together. The idea of a village for safety from wild animals and raiding groups had to be imagined before it could come into being. Loyalties to a leader had to have a rationale. Belief in the power of a deity could unite large groups of people, and favour from that deity claimed by a leader, could be the rationale for accepted leadership. Believers could be persuaded to enforce loyalty on those who were not so open to the idea of accepting what was proposed, or the leader proposing it. 


The idea of a temple is a story. Our religions are based on stories, ideas people have had about the nature of our lives, of our world. The idea of a nation is a story. Our societies have been built by these and other stories. These days we group together in vast numbers so our societies can function. Our societies can function because most of us accept its rules. Traffic flows because we all accept the same rules of the road. We have enforcers to ensure that most do. The complex world we inhabit, and have ourselves organized to bring about, is a result of all our stories. You might call those stories all the ideas man has had. They have allowed us to create and build our civilization.


Myself, I am a happy man. My stories have won me the love of my life and the fruits of my labours.

*See Harari-Sapiens, A Short History of Humankind,  Mclelland and Stewart, 2014

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