We think we humans are different from our brother and sister species, those that swim, walk and fly all around us.
Some believe we’re different because we’re figurines molded by a supreme being, a male alien who created this spinning ball we call home, and placed his humanoids in a beautiful garden he called Eden.
He then handed his playthings a deed to the planet, including all its minerals, flora and fauna, commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply” and left them to figure out the rest.
The arrangement was, in the words of early chroniclers, “Very good” though many since would take issue with that assessment.
Others believe toolmaking makes us different… that is they did until Chimps were found swinging stone hammers, which both literally and metaphorically smashed that thesis.
Some think it’s the opposable thumb (the ability to touch the tip of each finger with the thumb of the same hand) sets us apart. After all, it’s an attribute without which toolmaking, not to mention writing and poker, would be impossible. They say our thumbs have given us a decisive edge over our fellow creatures.
Many others subscribe to the theory that language makes us special. But as with toolmaking, it’s not an attribute uniquely humans … it’s a notion I’m certain dolphins and whales would vehemently object to, if they were in the least interested in wasting precious time discussing such narcissistic premises.
Still, there’s no denying our astounding success as a species. After all, now, as it was for large reptiles during the Mesozoic era, we’re the kings of the food chain, the top of the heap.
And we humans are not only lords of the earth (except for some nasty viruses), we’ve succeeded to such an extent that we protect, feed and clothe millions of fellow humans who’d not last a minute in the paleolithic era. Just look around. How many weak, old, pock-marked, demented, looney, spectacle-wearing, mentally deficient, obese people do you see?
Sorry brother and sister species, none of you can do that!
So what was it that enabled humans to do such a bang-up job at survival and dominance?
Stories. That’s what did it! Stories.
I believe we think in stories, that language evolved as a vehicle for storytelling. I’m not suggesting that the first troglodyte grunt morphed into the stone age equivalent of “Have a nice day” … but it did convey short, compelling narratives, along the lines of “I think lions close” or “Now time pick berries.”
Simple, stark, unsophisticated declaratory narratives. It probably didn’t take long for some mutant genius to figure out tenses … “Think sun come back after sleep” or “Father of father of father say if no find deer or fish, sacrifice goat.”
Over countless millennia, stories have acted as our teachers and our social-glue.
With stories as guides we formed successful hunting packs and molded young men into malleable armies. We formed tribes whose stories taught us when to marry, who to marry, what to eat and what not to eat. How to raise new humans and bury old ones. How to sow and when to harvest.
At their core stories are how-to guides for life, pedagogic morality tales. They’re histories of our ancestors and speculations about our future. They proffer answers for the riddles of life, death and its aftermath.
As such, stories serve as cultural windows. Cumulatively they give us insight into how people thought, and how those who walked on this earth before us spent their lives, day by day and season by season.
And stories are mirrors in which, if we look, we can see images of ourselves. What we believe and what we reject. The values we hold and the lessons we teach those who will come after us.
All of this occurred to me after my wife asked me how I’d review a movie we viewed, called American Hustle. It’s a clever plot-driven story; an entertaining and well-acted film … but as a mirror for our zeitgeist, it takes place in a world that’s dystopian, disturbing and ultimately doomed.
The hero (though the word doesn’t strictly apply) of Hustle is a corrupt politician whose heart’s in the right place but whose hands are in the wrong pocket. The ingenue is a small-time con man pushed into the big leagues by a leading lady with a talent for accents and a glory-seeking federal agent. The police are portrayed as a bunch of ego-maniacal goons and the mafioso as the only law that actually means anything.
It’s a bleak landscape peopled by greedy, immoral characters. And it’s not alone. It’s a trend that’s been steadily building since the late 1960s, and has become so common it’s background for much of our cinematic storytelling.
American Hustle joins a succession of films, from The Deerhunter to American Beauty to No Country For Old Men that tell stories of loss, desolation … a world filled with iniquity and beyond redemption.
Contrast this with the stories Hollywood told during its golden years, when heroes rode into the sunset after defeating the forces of evil and restoring good. Nowadays evil’s in the saddle.
I’m not sure why the change occurred. Perhaps the Vietnam fiasco, with all of its spilled blood and deceptions poisoned America’s belief in stories that featured cowboy virtues and happy endings. For whatever reason, a new, destructive storyline captured the imagination of the body politic, academia and the cinema … one that disfigured our heroes and despoiled our histories.
Personally I prefer stories that entertain me, that uplift me in some way. Not in a saccharine, unrealistic or melodramatic way, but in the vein of Shakespeare whose plays, though often violent and tragic, end with moral order restored. We see in them the follies and vanities of humankind … and, more importantly, we can learn from them.
I grew-up with Roy Rodgers and Walt Disney stories, but now kids grow-up with Dexter (a serial killer who only kills other killers … how uplifting) and Walter White of Breaking Bad (a high school chemistry teacher turned drug lord).
I, for one, am tired of those chattering classes who want me to feed me a steady diet of guilt, remorse and shame for fabricated crimes I’ve not committed. But I find myself far more concerned about the lessons our stories on TV, in the movies and in the schoolroom are teaching our kids.
That‘s a Hustle of an entirely different, and much more dangerous sort.