Thursday, October 31, 2019


I recently read the book Sapiens for my local book club. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it! Among the gems scattered throughout the book is the concept of inter-subjective fictions.

So things can, of course, be subjective. You like beets. I think they taste like rotten dirt. Subjective. There can also be things that are objective. The speed of causality in the universe is 299,792,458 m/s. But between the two is this notion of inter-subjectivity.

Something that's inter-subjective is not based in objective reality (i.e. we can science the shit out of it), but is rather a mutually agreed-upon story that allows for us to cooperate. Money is a great example of such a story. We all agree that a coin or a bill or some bits can be traded for things like food and shelter, not because those things are objectively worth anything, but because it's a useful story that lets us trade things way more efficiently. So too the fiction of a political structure allows us to organize people to do things that would otherwise be impossible.

In fact all of human culture is based on interlocking, overlapping, sometimes contradicting, and always evolving inter-subjective fictions. These are the stories that echo through our society, but more than that, they're the stories that shape our brains and bodies to their reality. We tell stories about what a real man/woman is or what a real American is or what success means or what beauty means. We tell stories about the jobs that are important and the ones that are disposable. We tell stories about the people that are important and the people that we think are disposable.

One of the members of the book club, reflecting on this part of Sapiens, remarked about how depressing it is to think that all of human culture is nothing but stories. I see it as exactly the opposite. The realization that it's all just words is incredibly liberating to me. Because, as is said in the rabbinic tradition, words create worlds. We can change our words and change our world.

Every word you speak is filled with creative magic. Every word you write adds to the story of humanity that we're all telling together, in real time. Every word you receive into yourself becomes a part of your magical toolkit, for good or for ill.

It's easy to let our magic fall unheeded, to let our creative power be swept along in the stream of the stories that brought us all to this place. It's easy to let the story replace the reality, and to confuse the subjective and malleable with the objective and immutable. It's easy to reiterate the same words and recreate the same world.

But you have magic in your words not meant for ease and comfort, but for courage and passion, for a full, beautiful story that resonates with wonder and delight. You have a story and a world that only you can breathe into existence, and that can only happen if you choose your words and the worlds you create rather than retelling the same, old, hurtful myths. 

immutable past
unknowable future

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