As the days grow shorter, one's thoughts turn to meta-narratives, those giant stories that define our world and our lives. A former student reveals his meta-narrative when he tells me he's chosen not to have children because he doesn't want to see them end up as cannibals or cannibal food. "You raise kids with the values of justice and mercy and altruism, they're going to be cannibal food," he says. "Raise them to do what they have to do to survive, and they'll be cannibals."
His vision stems from assumptions about American life a decade from now. The cheap oil will be gone, the economy will have collapsed, climate refugees will have overrun our borders and our farmland will be desert. Too many people, not enough nonhuman food sources.
The End of Civilization is my student's meta-narrative. His genetic line might not have hit a dead end had he believed in Utopia and Ecotopia, stories about humans Living In Peace With Human Nature or With The Earth. His household might echo with childish laughter if he had bought into laissez-faire capitalism, where The Market Will Make You Free; or Marxism, where History Will Make You Free; or Christianity, where Christ Has Washed Away Your Sins And Cannibalism Is A Sacrament.
A warning sign of any meta-narrative is its surplus of capital letters. Another warning sign is that anyone who believes in a meta-narrative thinks it's terribly important that other people believe in it, too.
Although meta-narratives can look silly when presented this way, if yours or mine malfunctions, we're in trouble. Stop believing, and former friends who still believe will invoke the standard boilerplate clause that allows them to kill apostates. If they merely decide you're crazy, you still end up alienated from family, co-workers, authorities, and your book club.
We're surrounded by meta-narratives that are no longer doing their work of keeping us sane. Free Energy From The Peaceful Atom is broken, as is Get Rich Flipping Houses, as is Work Hard And Save Your Money And Live On Interest. Go To College And Get a Job has malfunctioned, as has "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori."
A person's usual response when his or her meta-narrative breaks is to make up lies to repair it, as when a fundamentalist Christian looks at a fossil and calls it an invention of Satan.
My favorite meta-narrative, which is showing signs of dry rot, is Brilliant Writers Always Become Rich and Famous.
People explored meta-narratives long before the postmodernists began waving them around. The longshoreman Eric Hoffer, writing in The True Believer about the crowds who cheered Mussolini and Hitler, said that "a rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of individual existence."
Hoffer suggested meta-narratives are arbitrary constructs with no inherent meaning. Thus a fundamentalist Muslim and a fundamentalist Christian and a fundamentalist Hindu are philosophically identical. They worship sacred texts rather than ponder them. A few guards at Guantanamo intuited this phenomenon when they threw copies of the Koran into toilets and struck at the heart of the fundamentalist meta-narrative.
It's hard to experience the breakdown of your meta-narrative as anything but violence to yourself and your community. Such violence begets more violence. New meta-narratives can be made out of the scrap of broken ones, and there's always a sociopath out there forging one from the nastiest and most fearful parts of the human psyche. Were they to be judged by the stories they tell, Bibi Netanyahu and the leaders of ISIS would end up in adjacent cells in the God's Chosen People wing of The Hague.
One detail of my own meta-narrative should be obvious. General statements about human nature or the individual's relation to the cosmos—anything that ends with the letters ISM—are to be treated with a healthy skepticism.
The problem with living in a time when so many big stories are breaking down is that once you start seeing things from an above-the-fray perspective, it's hard to believe in anything. Lawyers stop believing in laws. Religious leaders stop believing in gods. Doctors stop believing in healing. There's no map to guide you back to a place to where anything seems real.
The solution is a careful witnessing of life as you go through it, a painstaking accumulation of memory.
Easy to say, dangerous to do. Hoffer's absence of meaning produces casualties, of the mind if not the soul. There are no answers, and the questions multiply. Until the end of your life you won't be able to tell whether you're a cannibal or cannibal food. But you can slowly make meaning out of life if you have the courage and patience to live it. Your story will be much more durable and interesting than those murderous frauds designed for the mob. It will still be a fiction, but it will be a fiction that bears witness to all the worlds that exist, whether you believe in them or not.
Adapted from John Rember's MFA in a Box blog, mfainabox.com.