Questioning our Stories

I’ve always been a tester as long as I remember. When someone tells me something out of the ordinary … well, it’s not that I don’t trust your judgement or anything but I would like to know if there are facts to back that up. Even though I must admit that at first I would only look for confirming evidence (before I knew about confirmation bias), but if I could not find it I would get suspicious. Even if someone is honestly telling you what they believe, they can still be wrong. That’s how I’ve always felt about a family claim of Cherokee ancestry — especially since the details seemed lost to time. Not a name, not even a certain spot on the family tree. Grandpa’s grandma … or great grandma … or maybe great-great grandma? In search of evidence, I got a DNA test with one of the commercial providers which showed that there is negligible trace of Native American DNA in my genome, and even that is speculative.

It’s not just me being skeptical. I’ve always thought it was fun to tease out the details of a claim and see what I can find. Even finding out for sure something is not really true is a discovery. I forget sometimes that not everyone feels this way. I showed my results to some family members, and they seemed put out by the result — even digging in their heels. I felt a little bit guilty about that. I’d heard it so much from my family, not just my parents but from aunts and uncles too, that it feels a bit like I am smearing my family’s narrative about its history.

It reminds of the way that humans — ever since language was invented, apparently — have made up stories to not just entertain themselves but to bolster ideas like national identity and family claims. Even much of the things we are taught about our national histories fit into a narrative. What I learned as American history in school turned out to be not lies, really, but often selected truths and perspectives. The narrative supported by the powerful — what they wanted children to know. (This applied to both the public school and homeschool history.) Textbooks talked about Pilgrims and Indians getting along as equals, the overriding importance of religious freedom (though there seems to have been little of that early on), and about something called ‘manifest destiny’ in spreading across the continent. Today I have books on history that show different perspectives — perspectives of ordinary people, of workers, of the underclasses — and the idealistic narrative of American exceptionalism crumbles. I still respect the “Founding Fathers” but I no longer idolize them. They used elegant rhetoric about how “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” while still using slave labor to build America and ignoring the voice of anyone who was not a white male property owner. It was pretty rhetoric but it was never reality.

It’s not just the past, but current events too. Some news stations are known to slant towards a liberal or a conservative bias. I think what that really means is that they are both pushing their own particular narrative. Not outright lies (at least I HOPE not) but selected truths and assumed half-truths and never the whole story. That’s why I no longer trust the corporate-owned media. There is always someone behind the scenes determining what should be published or not based on reasons other than whether or not it is true and whether or not the public should know. There is an audience to cater to, and advertisers and shareholders to please. They tell the stories they want us to hear.

And, of course it makes me think of the myths of the Bible. Those old stories that were passed down by oral tradition over the generations before they were ever written down. The details of the actual events — if they happened at all — are lost to time never to be subject to fact-checking. They were ancient stories intended to bolster the national identity of Israel and to encourage devotion to a national god. In that context, claims that the Bible is ‘historical’ make sense — but as nationalistic mythmaking, not as an unbiased record of what happened.

People’s whole lives and realities are built around stories. It’s never really considered polite or patriotic to call nationalistic, family, or religious narratives into question. I think it’s important to question those stories to make sure they are true. Our questioning can at least help us bring our beliefs into better alignment with reality. On the national scale a willingness to listen to competing narratives could even stop wars.

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Merry Christmas and Happy Yule!

Merry Christmas and Happy Yule!

Today’s Sunday Blasphemy has been preempted in the spirit of goodwill this Christmas Day. Whether today is about the solstice, family, food, presents, Jesus, or all of the above to you — have a Happy Holiday!

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We are moving!

The ball is already rolling for The Skeptical Seeker to move to Hostmonster! I am moving to my own hosting account in order to have more control of my website design. The skepticalseeker.com domain is currently in the process of being transfered to the new registrar. The site may be down briefly when the transfer is complete, and then I will be back in my new home.

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A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol has been my favorite Christmas movie for as long as I remember. However for the last several years I have been discovering other movies — A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, The Year Without a Santa Claus — and other classics that I never saw when I was a kid. I finally got around to purchasing the George Scott version of A Christmas Carol, and when I watched it this year I saw it much through different eyes than I did as a child.

My earliest memory of the film (I don’t remember if it was the George Scott version or the earlier black and white one) was from watching it at school. I don’t remember what grade. But what I do remember is making paper chains like the ones kids usually make to count down the days until Christmas. But instead of a Christmas calendar we were making a Marley chain — reflecting on our actions and what bad deeds might be included in our chain to drag around the world like old Marley after we die. After all the story is a morality tale and the lesson should be to reflect on our behavior and make sure we are behaving properly and not adding to our chain of guilt. We should be sorry and repent and change our ways — just like we were taught in church.

christmas-carol-1984-marley

Maybe what it took for me was a bit of aging and life experience, but now I look back on that lesson and think what a terrible thing it was to have children focus on. It is part of the story. Perhaps the old lesson about behaving so you don’t get punished is on the level for school children. But there are other lessons here that are so much more positive.

As we learn the story of Ebenezer Scrooge from seeing his past, we learn he had a very difficult life when it came to relationships. His father hated him because his mother had died giving him birth. He loved his sister Fanny but hardly got to see her because his father had banished him to boarding school throughout his childhood. Then Fanny died at a young age. His first love left him because he was so intent on being ‘good enough’ for her in a financial way that he neglected their relationship.

The problem with Ebenezer Scrooge was not that he was a wicked greedy old miser. The problem was that he was lonely. He had gotten so used to being lonely that he continued to neglect the people in his life and instead chased the only value he knew — money.

a-christmas-carol-1984-george-scott-560

I noticed it was not the fear of lugging a horrid chain post-mortem that lead him to repent. It was remembering what it was like to be joyful, to be in love, and to have a mentor who cared about his apprentices and celebrated with them. It was seeing the family of his employee Bob Cratchit and empathising with him and his family and his ill son. If fear ever was a factor, it was the fear of the future possibility of dying alone and unloved and despised — which unlike hell or heavy ghostly chains after death is a real possible consequence of a miserly life.

This is a story of the vital importance of love, and joy, and relationships — not about fear and guilt. Money is important — we need it to survive as the poorer characters in the story know well — but it is not the only thing that matters. Not even close. Relationships are the key to a happy and well-lived life.

Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.
-Robert Green Ingersoll

Source: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/r/robertgree122475.html

 

 

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Sunday Blasphemy: Happy Solstice!

Sunday Blasphemy: Happy Solstice!

This Wednesday is the Winter Solstice, the real reason for the season! It also begins the 12 day celebration of Juul (aka Yule), the pre-Christian Scandinavian celebration of the return of the sun and of the god Thor. Lots of our Christmas traditions — including the use of holly and evergreens and the Yule log — come from pre-Christian northern Europe.

So, this Solstice gather close, put a Yule log on the fire, and have hope that warmer and brighter days will return!

yulelog

Source: https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/december-solstice-customs.html

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