Why is it that, all over the planet, the world-view of otherwise vastly diverse societies is grounded in conflict? Nearly every culture has their own lore about good and evil; a myth of origins in which a benevolent creator in some way gives birth to our Earth, which is then hijacked into a metaphysical darkness and chaos by some trickster deity. The perennial tug-of-war between the forces of creation and the forces of destruction lies at the very basis of our conception of who we are as human beings. Where, though, does this idea come from? Is it merely a myth, born of the play of the seasons, of the human struggle to somehow conceptualize death and give it meaning?
In essence, I disagree completely that conflict – in the sense of conflict as war, battle, bloodshed, competition, or sacrifice – is necessary for story. I have long wondered why we humans, who consider ourselves to be at the pinnacle of evolutionary intelligence, seem to have voluntarily chosen to form and live under communal structures based on vicious competition, brutality, and slavery, when we find ourselves, by accident or no, on such a generous planet. As far as we know, no other globe, spinning through the lifeless, cold vacuum of outer space, offers such a warm and fecund womb. For time out of mind (and, hopefully, for a few years yet), fruit dropped wild and unbidden from trees, plants offered themselves up for medicine and nutrition to those who could unlock the secrets of their potential, pure water ran free for the taking. There should, if you think about it, be little to fight about.
Yet we seem to be imitating something, some blueprint that told us to go out and conquer – to kill, to consume, to wrest by force what should have been ours for the taking to begin with. If the most basic tenet of evolution is that an organism adapts itself to the environment, what is going on with the human race? Has someone tweaked our genetic blueprint? Is there, indeed, a God somewhere, cloaked and watching behind the veil of light-years, who woke up one day and was simply bored with living in an infinity of perfection? Are we indeed the product of an immortal alien who decided, out of restlessness, to go out looking for a fight, just to have some action?
But perhaps I am taking things too far. Maybe I should back up a little, descend from the vaults of the Heavens, and return to the idea of story, and why we hunger for narrative. Even if we were not, particularly in modern times, trained to expect the maximum of drama possible – even if we did not long for stories that make us cry, make our heart race from suspense, make us jump out of our seats and scream with horror – even if we lived in slower-paced, more subdued times, no one can argue that they expect a story to take them out of themselves, away from their seemingly-mundane daily lives, into a world that offers them an excitement they feel incapable of creating for themselves. I wonder, though, if all of these special effects, all the explosions and long, drawn-out fight scenes, are actually only distracting us from the more real, more instructive, and, in the end, infinitely more heartbreaking stories of an average day in an average life. If we, as humans, are mirroring some kind of cosmic war, what would be more empowering than to turn our backs on the values it has taught us, and listen, rather, to the lulling, patient voice of the planet that has raised us? Why not tell stories the way she does, as quietly unfolding mysteries; each humble moment and gesture a clue in a plot that could never be contained within the pages of a book or a two-hour movie?
When I began this essay, I was talking about conflict as combat, as competition, as two or more entities facing off against each other. There is, however, a kind of conflict that is inherent in our very existence, one which we can never escape – the fact of our death and the realization that our time to discover why we are here, or what we want to do with this life, is limited. This, though, is what gives us story to begin with. It is what gives our life meaning. If, in the words of the Talking Heads, “Heaven is a place where nothing, nothing ever happens,” then it is the very fact that we are mortal – the fact that we therefore so often make a mess of our lives, that we spend our time running in confused circles – that gives us something to talk about. If we want to go back to the idea of a god, I think that he must, if he exists, be quite jealous of us.
I don’t know the reason for war, for atrocity, for all of the terrible things that we as humans have done to each other throughout history. If I could, for a moment, imagine that such things would help us as a species to understand ourselves better, to transform and mutate into something more, I might be able to accept that this kind of conflict is necessary. I don’t, however, think that at all. However, the mere struggle to come to know ourselves, to come to terms with our minds and our bodies and how they fit in with this physical reality around us, is an incredibly deep and timeless engagement in itself. Perhaps we are simply the universe trying to know itself by fragmenting into an infinite number of consciousnesses, spreading itself through space and time in order to come back together and greet itself, as if in a mirror. Perhaps the fight that we all face, the lifelong challenge of coming to know ourselves, is part of a vastly complicated, self-reflecting game.
Every decision that we face throughout our lives, however uninteresting on the surface, is, in reality, a source of conflict. When we attempt to change, to break free of the limitations of our upbringing or economic background, we can clearly see the struggle and conflict that life brings to us on a daily basis. Even the most orderly, the most apparently mundane person has only brought his life to such an organized, predictable routine by subduing certain parts of himself. Anyone who has attempted to live outside of society’s standards has experienced how aggressively the norms of civilization will try to impede his ability to survive outside the framework of what is expected. On the other side of the same coin, every child has to realize at some point, when they begin to grow out of infancy and realize that compromise is necessary, that the world does not revolve around it; that it has to in some way adapt to what is going on around it.
The idea that story must be centered around a conflict which escalates, is dealt with, and is then somehow resolved is, in my mind, a bit too simplistic. If we are trying in literature to reflect reality, then such a structure is simultaneously too grandiose and too simplistic. Life, unlike time, does not move in a straight line. Very rarely, if ever, do our experiences fit into a neat little package with a beginning, middle, and end. Life moves, rather, in intersecting spirals, in which everything affects everything else, no matter how minimally. Perhaps it is time that we took our idea of narrative to another level.
Our lifelong struggle to realize ourselves, to be true to our innermost nature and to create a life that allows this unique essence that is at our core to express itself requires, at times, Herculean effort. We are born slaves to karma, whether one sees karma as the Hindus do, or as simply the impression that our ancestors left on our DNA and familial values. I am a person who has never been very much interested in competition – whether that be political, societal, economic, athletic, or sexual. As I spoke about at the beginning of this essay, too much focus on conflict – on winning – has done clear and irrevocable damage to the human race as a whole. I think that this is all too often reflected in the type of conflict that is so often at the center of fiction. The most interesting and most eternal conflict that we have, and that must be explored, is the conflict with ourselves, which, if dealt with sensitively and thoroughly, does not have to be conflict at all, but an exciting, though challenging, journey, a very personal story which is not always easy to shape, but is always created with love.