URSABLOG: Telling Stories

The troubling news that Kim Jong Un of North Korea will meet Vladimir Putin in the coming days to discuss selling ammunition to Russia made me start thinking of the possible complications this could lead to, both in the Ukraine and in and around the neighbourhood of North Korea. I found myself searching my brain for precedents that could inform me – and then most probably you – but then I stopped myself. Better read, smarter and more informed people than I could no doubt draw certain parallels, but I gave up before I even started.

I love telling stories, and love listening to them. This is no surprise because one of the reasons for the success – and perhaps the seeds of the eventual destruction – of the human species is that we make sense of life through stories, those that we tell ourselves, and those that we tell others, about ourselves, about others, about our own tribes, our political sympathies, and our countries. They help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us. And in order to tell stories we have to create them. This is dangerous stuff especially when we cannot, by default, have all the facts to hand, ever. We have to take in what limited data we have, process it, and organise it before making a narrative that makes sense to us, and that can explain our position – personally, politically, commercially, even romantically – to the rest of the world.

A good example of this was President Putin’s long essay about why Ukraine needed to be absorbed back into Russia, to be de-Nazified in fact. The response to this from the rest of the world was a mixture of pointing out the many errors – both in fact and interpretation – and using the treatise to try and see inside Putin’s mind to what he was really thinking, and predicting what he would then do. The invasion happened anyway.

The reasons behind Putin’s meeting with Kim are pretty clear from the outset: Russia needs armaments, and North Korea needs money, food, energy and technology. But the consequences of closer engagement between the two are not as clear cut, however dangerous for Ukraine the introduction of sophisticated, deadly long-range missiles – and the rest – will be for their counteroffensive efforts. The threat to shipping should be evidently clear too.

The potential to upset the balance in the conflict in the Black Sea is one thing, the destabilising of the area around North Korea is another. North Korea has been quiet for some time, mostly due to a draconian and extended lockdown against COVID, protecting a population of mostly unvaccinated 26 million people.

South Korea and Japan are naturally very concerned, and China finds itself in a difficult position somewhere in between as it tries to develop its position as a power in the world at the same time not wishing its relations with the US and Europe to deteriorate further. North Korea flexing its muscles now makes that corner of the world a far more dangerous place.

I found myself looking for suitable parallels in history, from before the First World War, to between the World Wars, even looking to the Cuba missile crisis for lessons. But of course there are none, because this is unprecedented; I was looking for a story from the past to explain the difficult present we are facing now, and looking for stories is dangerous.

I have mentioned approvingly in the past Kierkegaard’s saying: “Life can only be understood by looking backward; but it must be lived looking forward.” This is a nice meme theme, and can make us feel good when we are facing the future and looking for courage to do so. But did he really say this? It turns out on further investigation that – surprise, surprise – it is more complicated than that. He actually wrote:

“It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.”

This is not as comforting. So how do we make sense of life? We cannot stop time. We have to live with the fact that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood. Our solution is to tell stories, create a narrative that we can live within, that guides us forward, in the security of the stories that we tell ourselves and others. A lot of the time however, those stories can mislead, and in fact are plain wrong.

Markets do the same thing. The story that the dry bulk freight market will improve because of China’s improving economy post COVID/stimulus measures has had to be recalibrated to something different, more uncertain, lacking any real sense of direction, mostly because the story hasn’t turned out as expected. There is nothing wrong with this of course – as Keynes knew – facts change, and so should our minds. But speaking for myself I find it difficult to change my mind immediately when faced with facts, or inconvenient truths. In such cases, I have to face the fact that I was wrong to start off with, about something, about someone, about what I thought, all of which is very hard for me to do. Can I really admit to myself that a hard irrefutable fact staring me in the face for so long was ignored because it didn’t fit into the story I was telling myself – and others – at the same time?

Stories, narratives are difficult things to change, and their resilience lasts a long time and can cause irreparable damage until the story changes. This is especially true when conflicting narratives – particularly long held and preciously treasured ones – by different parties or communities collide, and conflict ensues, resolution is usually only found when a different story – pain, suffering, death, destruction, ruin – becomes the prevailing narrative and is addressed. How it is addressed creates new stories and narratives. And so the world goes on.

For markets too, a boom – or a bust – is usually driven by a narrative, and that has to run its course before it corrects, one way or another. The efficient market hypothesis can explain a lot of things but it does not factor in the stories that the market tells itself; this is different from data. This is why sentiment is so key in any market, and cannot be explained just by animal spirits alone.

In fact in so may areas of life – business, politics, personal relationships of any sort, interaction with institutions, everywhere in fact – differing narratives create conflict and confrontation. But they also create tension from which opportunities arise, and great beauty can be found and created. It is the story of our species.

And this is where the paradox, for me, lies. If we are evolutionary hardwired to make sense of the world through stories, and those stories are necessarily limited in their scope, and a lot of the time wrong, or even if they are right they conflict with other stories as passionately held, how can we ever make sense of – or be comfortable – in the world around us? We find new stories to tell, or we go mad.

I do not have children of my own, but I am blessed with many nieces and nephews. One of my favourite pastimes with them when they were young was reading them stories, mostly fiction of course. The ability of the young mind to absorb and make sense of things that are plainly not true is astounding. There is something wonderful about the imagination of young children, and something sad about the loss of it as we grow older. One of my nieces told me off once, complaining “You’re telling the story differently than Daddy!” I asked her why this upset her. “It’s not the same! You make it sound like a different story!” A favourite story not only had to be told faithfully word for word (it was), but in the same way otherwise it meant something else, something different, something unsettling.

With so many things happening in the world at the same time, with our access to information better than ever before, is it no surprise that the temptation to stick to a story, a narrative, and how it is told, becomes overwhelming. How can we persuade others of the validity of our stories, that what they think of what we think, of us, is wrong? We can either only tell our stories in different ways, or listen to their stories with greater attention. Russia’s and North Korea’s stories are now finding a common narrative in the need for co-operation, one that threatens regional and global stability. The dry bulk market is searching for a different narrative at the moment to replace a story that didn’t play out as planned.

But as Kierkegaard pointed out, life at any moment can never clearly be understood. That is either worrying or liberating depending on your point of view. I prefer the latter, it is more hopeful. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Simon Ward