Recently my Priest friend Richard and I had a lengthy discussion. He introduced me to a method of study that caused my mind to light-up with the implications. Thoughts and images began reshuffled in my mind while new ideas were formed to fill in the gaps. He contrasted the notions of thin narrative versus that of a thick narrative.
A narrative is telling a story. It is complete with characters, a theme, and a basic underlying message. You can have a narrative you tell yourself about yourself…your self talk. They are stories that you’ve learned during childhood about your family image or race or social class; religious myths, or political indoctrination. Narratives, as you can infer from the word, are most often remembered when they are spoken, but can appear and be reinforced in wide variety of ways: images, commercial, and slogans. The repetition of various catchphrases embedded in sound bites, condition us with a recall of certain ideas and beliefs which are intended to tell us something about who we are supposed to be: individually or collectively. So, what’s the story you have about yourself, your family, your race, your age, your social class, the country you live in, and the state of the world itself? These are the stories worth investigating and perhaps after some dissections of the propositions implied in them, will you find them acceptable? Or will some facts or gaps in reason force you into a re-evaluation? And perhaps more powerfully cause a rewrite of some aspects of the script itself?
But the question is: how deep does your story examine its facts and beliefs, its beginning premises and its ending conclusions? Minimal and narrow thinking and blind acceptance are the two major components associated with a thin or shallow narrative. They never dive deeply or proceed under the assertions, but tend to accept them on face value. “You are a bad boy or girl,” a parent intones implanting a razor sharp data bit into a child’s story. Often with no intent to mar the young mind but more likely merely aping and passing on a narrative that was given to them at near the same age. And the child, wanting more than anything to be loved and held secure by the nearest thing to a god that the concrete thinking of an innocent mind can muster; swallows the entirety of the message with obedience and unquestioning belief. Sound familiar? Oh, the other side is true, also. Many a jerk in the world was told by mommy or daddy what a good boy or girl they were only to grow up with a superior sense of righteous entitlement. What narratives produce, is as varied as the person who receives and interprets them. Yet, narratives tend to produce trends in belief and justifications in behavior.
Of course, to reach a thick narrative is to deeply examine the assumptions and contexts in which a message has been conveyed. Some rare souls come by it naturally; having an innate sense of Self which acts as a filter or spawns a need to question. In absence of such an instinctive confidence and sovereignty, most of us have had to learn it through hard work and trial and error. Even then, the new conclusions might still rest upon a newly produced thin narrative, just with some twists, additions, or exceptions included.
Thin narratives, our own or cultural ones, are not bad or wrong, as a requirement of labeling. They are generally short and seem to be invoked in a knee jerk fashion… without thinking. Thus, we employ them unconsciously and it reveals something of what is in the shadows of our subconscious programming. Some of the most universal maxims of human morality have been expressed in this way. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “An eye for an eye.” “You are what you eat.” “Love thy neighbor as thyself” are but a few well known examples of a thin narrative with deeper meaning and consequences. However, what makes or reduces them to a shallow narrative occurs when someone spouts it as an automatic or rote recitation, said in circumstances where one witnesses the behavior of the speaker being incongruous with the meaning of the aphorism.
Thick narratives, by contrast, require qualification and specification. Thin narratives have the quality of “one-size-fits-all.” The contrast leans somewhat closely to how one considers the truth in a situation. A thin narrative tends to be absolutist pronouncing guilty or innocent. It leaves no room for the nuances and extenuating circumstances upon which reality is founded. Thus, any evaluation where justice is to be served ONLY happens when a Thick Narrative is employed. A distinction that might be helpful is this: a thin narrative is expressed as truth possessed. But for a thick narrative, more inclusive and considering of the many components that comprise a moment of reality, may be thought of as truth pursued. In other words, the former is simplistic, derisive, dismissive, and emotionally pacifying. While the latter requires willingness to confront expectations, exceptions and complexity, and it is often intellectually challenging, unsettling, taxing, and even produce an outcome which leaves one emotionally racked and ambivalent.
Implied in the process of gaining maturity, which might be said to advance in thought and hopefully wisdom; is the notion that as we age our narratives must grow in depth – if not in number. Thus, we begin the paradoxical realization that although we’ve learned and experienced more than as children or young adult; our total knowledge pales in comparison to what there exists in the world we could possibly understand. Such a viewpoint takes a great deal of emotional and spiritual strength while keeping an open and examining mind. As our years extend so should our narratives thicken. But it is the case for many that as the years advance, it takes its toll on attention, patience, tolerance, and thought. And just like a receding hair line, our narratives thin to match our diminished capacity, and the inevitable apathy which leads the retreat.
This trend is occurring with many of our so-called cherished values and precepts. Oversimplifications and generalities cast the idea of “separation of church and state” under the wheels of the oncoming juggernaut of fanaticism which declares, in spite of these words venerated in print for over 200 years, is now challenged by a not-so-new thin narrative: “Americais a Christian nation.” This is a extreme conservative narrative of our modern era which is both disturbing, if not frightening. The fear which many Americans feel from losing out on cherished memes like “the American Dream” and “liberty and justice for all” make fertile ground for the seeds of jingoistic thin narratives to be planted. Duped and manipulated by even greater and more sophisticate forms of propaganda; a citizen’s ability to think is deliberately and systematically assaulted; diminished by a combination of information overload, deliberately miscast and obfuscated messages; intentionally directed by those in control of media to raise the specter of anger, fear, and powerlessness on the part of the public. This task accomplished by repeated bombardments of thin narratives called sound bites and slogans. But the greater damage of repeated immersion into thin narrative, as a substitute for contemplative thought, is it reduces the capacity of many persons to comprehend or digest anything but thin narratives! This is what some pundits and educators call the dumbing-down of the populace.
Overleaves which are the foundation of the Michael Teaching, when investigated and pursued with an analytical rigor and self awareness, can reveal the vast and unique nuances of these traits as they apply to an individual. In that way, they offer a fairly substantial thick narrative; enabling much in the way of discovery and validation for anyone who employs them. But there is a tendency in the use of classification systems which actually designate a whole class of people or objects, reduce concepts to mere labels. From there the “you are a” syndrome appears. Using labels as a shorthand, calls up positive halo affects as well as tired but established presumptions and prejudices. Too often, I can come across someone offering opinions based upon a thin narrative surface usage of either the Overleaves or Soul Ages; creating rather non-specific assertions pigeon-holing anyone with a certain trait into a specific way of thinking, being, or acting. As common as such projections are they box both the speaker and the listener shoving them into a vague limbo of “those people” and reducing individuals to stereotypes.
Moving forward into our future, we must go deeper plumbing the depths of our notions considering the more solid implications of our statements. Dredging up from the murky bottom of subtleties and uncertainties found in a thick narrative, those facts and misrepresentations of dogma under a thin narrative we held as truth. Any future built upon shafts of straw aphorisms rather than on the solid foundation of genuine understanding, guarantee only demise. And with this warning in place, how we assess our fellow citizens, whether we apply a thin narrative of Soul Age or political affiliation or a thick one will speak volumes, of us! That assessment may sometimes be in a single sentence, reflecting the shallowness or depth of our own story. A saga of a life; a story of who you are and who I am.
How will you write yours and what will you say about it?