Shapes of Stories – Applying Vonnegut’s Tool to an Ancient Story

By: Heero Yuy

shapes-of-stories

Once upon a time the Ketuvim (כְּתוּבִים‎‎) was written. In it contained three poetic books called Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. It also includes a collection of five scrolls (Megillot) that has the book of Ecclesiastes. The introduction to Ecclesiastes the author is introduced as “son of David, king in Jerusalem” or better known as Solomon.

This book is a very good candidate to analyze and discuss with Shape of Stories as used by Kurt Vonnegut. All of stories can be mapped on an axis such as the one below:

plot
All stories have a beginning and an end filled with a mixture of good and ill fortunes. Within each story there are sub stories that follows the same principle. This is how all stories are told since the beginning of time and some get creative by jumping around on the timeline to tell slices of the story in non-chronological order (i.e. Fight Club or better yet Pulp Fiction).

The story of Ecclesiastes is told from the perspective of a King who’s done it all and seen it all and can truly profess that “there is nothing new under the Sun.” Each pursuit begins with purpose, progresses to fruition, celebrated with delight upon triumph, and ends dismissive as a useless and meaningless journey. Each chapter is a mini story and each paragraph a sub-story that follows this story arc.

For instance, the story begins where everything is meaningless in a very bottom-line upfront approach in story telling. Next the author tells the audience that:

  • Wisdom
  • Pleasures
  • Wisdom and folly
  • Toil

There is an intermission where the element of time is introduced and different elements on the spectrum of human experience in opposing pairs such as:

  • Birth and death
  • Plant and uproot
  • Kill and heal
  • Tear down and build up
  • Weep and laugh
  • Mourn and dance
  • etc, etc
  • War and peace

Before resuming his negative stream of consciousness the author also gives a hint at the idea of infinity, eternity, and God. Along with these elements the author describes beauty, happiness, satisfaction, toil, and fear.

A continuous chorus of “everything is meaningless” is song constantly throughout the dialog to drive the point home to remind the reader of this “ill journey” on the shape of the story. The “ill journey” on this journey is eternal confusion and failing to comprehend eternity to be stuck in an infinite loop of questioning in a finite world without knowing how to migrate to the next level of infinity.

Before resuming to telling the next elements of meaninglessness the author runs through yet another mini-story explaining the meaninglessness of toil, dragging down the story towards “ill journey”, and then at the end offers a solution which is to journey in life with a battle buddy and never going it alone:

“Two are better than on, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.”

Journey resumes and the list of meaningless continues with:

  • Advancement (Keeping up with the Jones’) [Part 1]
    • No way any normal man can keep up with a King, and no way a life can have meaning if a King cannot find meaning in it… Right?

Another intermission to remind man of eternity and “fulfill[ing] your vow to God.”

Meaningless list drags on with:

  • Riches [Part 2]
    • Can’t take money to the grave!
    • Your clout doesn’t matter worth a damn in a finite life vs. infinity

Now the entire meaning of life, major elements of it, and the toils and pleasures are all essentially worthless the author turns over a new leaf to then bring meaning back into all forsaken elements one by one. This is powerful for two reasons:

  1. He got your attention by riding the story up and down the line of good and ill fortune
  2. All your current perceptions and prejudices against all known things in life are now wiped clean
    1. You are now a clean canvas
    2. The teacher can start his lesson anew to build one up again

Each brick of the foundation is thus laid as follows (rising up from ill fortune to good fortune):

  • Wisdom
    • “A person’s wisdom brightens their face and changes its hard appearance”
      • Metaphoric for internal self image and perception
  • Obey the King
    • Basic law and order
  • A common destiny for all
    • We all die (Sorry!)
  • Wisdom is better than folly
    • “Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than strength.’ But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.”
      • People chase paper credentials and social status more so than real life wisdom (Even back in the day!!!)
  • Invest in many Ventures
    • Talks about diversification to hedge against risk
    • Observe market conditions to know when to throw down and toil, when to restrain oneself
    • Concludes with step-by-step investment strategies and the mechanics of investing
  • Remember the Creator while young
    • A troubled heart and anxious mind confuses the young
    • Message is to ponder about the infinity and see how small your daily problems are in comparison

Author after mentoring the young closes his Sales pitch by saying the hard earned truth is the most concise guide to a no non-sense life without any addition or subtraction from the principles outlined. Studying too much and reading too far into other texts in search of the distilled wisdom is a pure waste of time.

Major arcs in the story consists of a beginning where it is “ill fortune” with mini-stories of ill and good fortune and the story progresses to “good fortune” until the conclusion where it remains neutral like the glass surface of a still lake on a calm day. Stories conclude like this for only one reason and that is to leave the choice up the reader to willfully live a different life or remain the same as before even after learning of this knowledge.

The lights fade, curtains drawn, stage empty, and either the audience applauds or walks out in silence.

 

Self Worth – Opinions of others – What is your worth?

By: Heero Yuy

feynman-1981-2

I wasn’t much of a scientist or engineer but I found the stories of these great folks who were in those particular fields of study to be very fascinating. The man above is Richard Feynman and he is one of the most interesting Physicists I know. Feynman wrote an interesting book called Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character). He leads you through all the ways he thinks about life as a Physicist and an inquisitive person. He doesn’t particularly care for what others think of him, particularly his grammar, and just does things for fun! Give the book a read if you haven’t done so already as it is a worthwhile adventure.

Feynman never for a moment doubted his own abilities or his insatiable desire to explore the world regardless of what his peers or contemporaries thought about him. His self worth is determined by the size of his imagination and appetite for adventure. Obviously, this eventually resulted in him taking on wild vacations by putting a finger on a spinning globe and getting a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. Guess it doesn’t hurt to be curious!

So, if Feynman can do it, so can you, right? Well… Not quite. Not to say you cannot get a Nobel Prize or have a lot of fun but you will never truly have fun if you live by the rules set by someone else and their definitions of attaining success. The following quote is widely associate to Albert Einstein. Regardless if that is true or not it is a good quote anyways:

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

This is how most people judge their own self worth:

 

It’s easy to gauge social status and worth by titles assigned at big Corporations and Institutions, current dollar amount in our respective bank and brokerage account, number of ponies in the stable (cars in the garage), square footage of the house(s) that we own, boats (yachts) on the dock(s), and planes (jets) in the hanger(s). That is a good way to gauge our extrinsic value without really looking at our intrinsic value. Usually, by harnessing intrinsic talents we can acquire a lot of extrinsic knowledge and wealth (i.e. Elon Musk). Society easily judges based on extrinsic value because it is easier than to assess the individual intrinsic worth. It’s quicker to check the people on Forbes 100 list than to read entire auto/biographies of those very same people.

One way to understand intrinsic value is to read and understand others, both living and deceased, through various forms of media available. Ultimately, you will find a character like Feynman who is naturally curious and inquisitive about the outside world and himself. You will understand that smart and rich people worry about the same things as you and I and much more by understanding how they think. Once you internalized this knowledge and acted upon it in some reflection you too will find your own self worth as determined by your metrics.

My highschool Math teacher Mr.Ben Cook once told me that:

“If you are not having fun, you are doing something wrong!”

He’s an interesting character and reflecting on my own life I know he is right!