Small, Smug Stories Make For Bad Neighbors

When I was in university I lived with my parents in an apartment where the walls were not particularly soundproofed. Most of our neighbors were respectful of this, except for one young man who decided to play bass-thumping music at top volume whenever he damn well felt like it.

Since the usual pounding on the wall didn’t work, and management took a laissez-faire attitude, I thought I would try to reason with him.

So, one day, after I had had more than enough, I knocked politely on his door. When I explained that I was his neighbor, he asked me in. And then I stood in his bedroom for a half hour and tried every imaginable tactic to persuade him to stop disturbing us with his obnoxiously loud music.

I told him that sound, like a foul wind, carries. I asked him to sympathize with me, a student trying hard to get good grades. I told him my mother, a nurse, worked shifts and his music interrupted her attempts at well-deserved sleep. Finally, though he was a pretty large guy, I even hinted vaguely at reprisals.

He informed me that playing loud music was his “right”—that was his one-and-only response to everything I said. After a while, I retreated back to our apartment, and, predictably, my conversation with him changed nothing.

Because even if we try to insulate and protect ourselves, ignore, or deny stories or facts that are strange, complicated or troublesome, like a neighbor’s loud music, these stories eventually reach us.

Whenever I think of that day I feel a certain frisson at the memory of Mr. I-Have-Rights’ dead eyes, and how utterly unmoved he was when confronted by the experience of another. No effort I spent trying to reframe the story within a larger context—one that included the physics of sound waves and a world with other people in it—seemed to have any effect on him. He didn’t even seem annoyed by my interruption, just impervious: comfortable in his tiny universe of one.

Since my neighbor wanted to follow his own solitary agenda, he knew instinctively that the best approach was to block out everything I said. Because new facts, new information, are always a threat to the smugness of the status quo. I was hoping that when he was face-to-face with me—when I was no longer a nameless, faceless entity on the other side of a wall but a real person with feelings and potentially valid arguments—he would reconsider his position. But he stubbornly refused to allow any new information or perspectives to enter into his thinking. The story he told himself (no doubt something like: I live here and I can do what I want, and that is my right) was finished, already written. Every new element I tried to add was summarily rejected. His fortress was perfectly defended.

But new information—if you allow it in—always changes the nature of a story. And new, expansive stories also, by definition, teach us that to change, adapt and grow, we once had to be uninformed or wrong. And that is unavoidable and perfectly okay!

It is also true that stories, if they only serve to make neat structures of familiar territory, can pad comfortable little prisons. We can choose to only tell ourselves, and limit our exposure to, stories that satisfy our every prejudice, ignorance and sense of self-righteousness we can muster. These are stories that make us feel like, of course that is the way it is, we knew that all along, and everyone who doesn’t agree, or follow our agenda, is wrong and easily dismissed. This is our “right”, after all.

There is a school of thought that argues that the cacophony of differing opinions amounts to expansiveness, a sign of our broadening world. But that is not necessarily the case. I applaud the fact that more voices than ever can be heard, and if we are looking for alternative views, we almost certainly can find them. But there is always a danger that we can associate only with like-minded people who share our own limited perspectives. It is all too easy to become more isolated and obstinate in our thinking, and draw strength and certainty from our own little (or not so little) crowd.

But an expansive story, as well as being difficult to achieve, is also, by its nature, a hard sell. It doesn’t offer easy answers. More often than not it exposes new questions. It can be uncomfortable, can feel like a threat. It undermines feelings of safety and smugness, and can challenge our most cherished pet beliefs.

In other words, an expansive story can turn our world upside down and force us to face  uncomfortable truths we would rather not examine.

Like studying the humanities, the value of an expansive story is not always immediately visible. Having an open, questioning mind in a world that seems to value quick, easy, short-term, or trite results can seem like a burden and a responsibility.

But the truth is that turning to populists like Donald Trump, or others we see in Europe and elsewhere (as highlighted by the cover story in this week’s Economist), will not end in the results their proponents may wish for, and often have the opposite effect. Because even if we try to insulate and protect ourselves, ignore, or deny stories or facts that are strange, complicated or troublesome, like a neighbor’s loud music, these stories eventually reach us. For none of us is truly isolated.

If we don’t learn to value expansiveness in stories—if we don’t actively seek to be challenged, questioned, or learn to accept the inevitably of being wrong, confused, and unavoidably fallible—we are destined to live in a society of factions.

Storytelling can open and expand our minds. But too often it is used as a weapon through which to close them.