We are hard-wired to want it simple. Long ago (400 million years) there was only one basic premise under which we operated –Stay Alive! The conscious part of our brains was evolutionarily geared for simplicity, so we could decide things like where to go hunt and not worry about how to make our bodies get there. Even today, we don’t ponder how to, say, drink a cup of coffee. We are happily oblivious of all the electrical, chemical, and muscular complexities required to accomplish the tasks of locating, reaching for, grasping, ferrying cup-to-mouth and swallowing. We just say, I want it and it happens.
If we suddenly had to consciously oversee all that activity, we would go catatonic with the overload. The “computer” would freeze up. Nature designed our consciousness to be left free so we can focus on the Stay Alive rule. But how “free” are we? Daily choices bombard us—what to eat, what to wear, what to get for holiday gifts, how to balance our checkbook, our jobs, family, health and social lives. On top of that, the issues we must decide are tangled in complexity—When does “life” begin? Is it okay to make animals suffer to find treatments for humans? Where is the line between democracy and stability? Between freedom and security?
What’s a brain to do? Naturally, the mind gravitates towards the simple. We are emotionally attracted to politicians who speak in one-liners that make sense to us even in isolation from context. Given a choice between choosing between black-and-white or multiple shades of grey, we go with the B&W. When an issue gets too nuanced or confusing, we feel uncomfortable. We want to have a right and a wrong; to know who is the good guy and who is the bad; who wins and who loses. It’s much easier and, perhaps an evolutionary directive to fit people and situations into categories, even if we have to ignore that it’s a round shape going into a square slot.
Writers wear the modern-day mantle of the story teller, symbolically gathering people together around the fire. A story can bear the complexities that we reject in other venues. If well-told, the reader can understand the good in the bad guy, or the bad in the good; see the “other side” of an issue or position or social situation; experience the kaleidoscope of humanity. This is part of the magic of story, that we can weave the reader into a non-reality that is a truer reality than the one held in the mind. That is an awesome power and an awesome responsibility.
T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.