Your Life as Movie

In my last post,…t-that-important/, I asked whether, if this life is similar to the dreams of our sleep, there’s really anything ever to worry about, since dreams have no consequences. I wondered about the reality of karma. The bottom line? If you’re dreaming right now, your actions have no lasting effects. Karma presupposes cause and effect in time. Without time, there’s no cause, no effect. If you’re dreaming, then there’s no sin and no lasting karma. The only conclusion you can then reach? Don’t take yourself or anything else so damned seriously.

Today, I’d like to extend the dream metaphor by looking at our lives on this planet as dramas. Some bona fides: I’m trained in dramatic writing and acting, my first loves. So let’s look at what drama and your life have in common.

First, take a look at Joseph’s Campbell’s journey of the hero (used interchangeably for male and female characters) in 12 stages. Throughout our history as a species, the myths which repeat throughout time and culture often take place in 12 stages. I’ll use The Lord of the Rings trilogy as an example of the 12 stage journey since it’s widely known and because it illustrates the world myth perfectly.

(1) We find our hero, Frodo Baggins, in his ordinary world of the shire, where he’s happy and surrounded by his friends and loved ones. (2) The hero is called to adventure after (3) meeting with his mentor, Gandalf the Gray, who assigns him his mission, his objective, which serves as the throughline for the remainder of the story. Sometimes, our hero is reluctant to answer the call. This (4) refusal of the call is simply marked by ambivalence in Frodo’s case, since he is more or less a willing hero. The actual mission assigned him by Gandalf is to take the ring of power, fashioned by our nemesis, Sauron, back to Mount Doom in the heart of Mordor, and there destroy it, since it can be destroyed in no other place or manner.

Next, Frodo and his friends Meri, Samwise and Pippin (5) cross the first threshold from their ordinary world, the shire, out into the larger world of kingdoms and caves replete with demons, monsters and other villains. There, they encounter many (6) tests, allies and enemies. These are too numerous to detail here. Suffice it to say that they encounter ring wraiths, cave trolls, orcs, man-eating spiders, balrogs (demons of the deep), a giant octopus, and many others. Enemies include but are not limited to all of the above, and most particularly include Gollum, a shapeshifting enemy who sometimes drops into the kindly and helpful persona of Sméagol. In order to defeat these enemies and suffer through these tests, Frodo and his hobbit pals meet up with the mysterious Ranger, Strider, the elf, Legolas (mean with the bow and arrow), and the jester-like dwarf, Gimli, who provides comic relief.

Most dramas involve  (7) an approach to an innermost cave, where the hero encounters his greatest fear, often the fear of death. This near-fatal encounter devolves into (8) the supreme ordeal, which presages the final conflict in the story. The supreme ordeal involves the hero’s figurative or literal confrontation with death. In Frodo’s case, there are several such encounters. The first involves his near death experience at Weathertop, where he is impaled by the sword of one of the Nazguls, ring wraiths enslaved by their craving for the power of the ring Frodo carries. Frodo nearly dies and the wound never fully heals. The innermost cave is not always a real one, but in Frodo’s case, there is more than one such approach to a real cave, where his ordeals involve near death encounters: He and his companions travel under a mountain and Frodo is stabbed by a cave troll. This time he is protected by mithril, a chainmail with miraculous properties. Later, he’s tricked by his onetime ally, Gollum, into entering a cave in which lurks a giant spider. The spider again impales him with her stinger, and Frodo enters a torpid state very near death.

After these encounters, however, the hero gains something through confrontation with her greatest fear. He (9) seizes the sword.  Although in many stories the sword is symbolic of something the hero needs to later defeat her adversary, in Frodo’s case, he’s given a very real sword which with to fight his many enemies. It turns blue in the presence of orcs. The hero then finds (10) the road back. She has what she needs to defeat her enemy in (11) a final battle. Also known as resurrection or climax, there are many such battles for the side of good in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frodo’s allies in the kingdoms of men – Gondor and Rohan – defeat the evil Sauron’s forces outside the city of Minas Tirith. Frodo’s final personal battle involves his struggle to rid himself of the ring’s influence (the irresistible corrupting nature of power) while he stands above the fires at the heart of Mount Doom. In this, he not only fights the evil Gollum for the ring itself, but his own desire for power.

At the end of happy stories (we exclude tragedies here), the hero (12) returns with an elixir for himself or his people. In Frodo’s case, with his trusted buddy Samwise Gangee’s help, the ring is destroyed, and Sauron is as well. The forces of evil are defeated. The lowly Ranger, Strider, takes his rightly place as Aragorn, the heir to the thrones of Gondor and Arnor. The world is saved. And they all live happily ever after. Even Faramir, disowned by his regent father and given up for dead, gets the girl. Frodo’s ultimate elixir is immortality, as he unexpectedly quits the Shire in order to venture to the Undying Lands.

Our own lives, found the eminent psychiatrist, C.G. Jung, are expressions of these myths, which barely conceal deep truths about our deeper selves. The archetypes – characters such as mentors, heroes, shapeshifters and tricksters – to name a few – repeat in our myths, in our dreams, and, Jung found, in our lives. And so, authentic human existence is intimately bound with drama.

In what other ways do our lives resemble drama? Well, they’re dramatic, for one thing. Let’s just say that our lives are like movies, or plays. A somewhat popular idea today suggests that we are living in a simulation, as simulated beings, or simulants. Given the ability of a massively powerful technological civilization to simulate a universe, what are the odds that such a culture would do so? Given our own penchant to develop incredibly more lifelike sims and our tendency to do things scientifically simply because we can, it turns out that the probability that we are indeed living inside a simulation is actually quite high, at least according to some.

Yet does it really matter? Maybe the simulated universe is just another metaphor that reflects the information age, just as the clockwork universe in some ways mirrored the industrial age. And the metaphor that life is dreamlike is a more ancient parallel to the simulant metaphor. I fell asleep and dreamed that I was a butterfly, said the Chinese sage. How do I know, he wondered, that I am not a butterfly dreaming that I am a man? And the metaphor that our lives are dramas in which each of us are, obviously, the main character, also parallels both the simulant and dream metaphors. All of these analogues – dream, drama and simulation – share common hallmarks.

In all three, suspension of disbelief is required in order for the story to have any impact on our psyches. Suspension of disbelief refers to the requirement that the audience – those watching the show – temporarily let go of the idea that what they are seeing is made up. In dreams, you’re usually not aware of the fact that you’re dreaming. In computer games and movies, the same denial of unreality is required if you really want to get something out of the experience.

If the life you are living is only a dream, or sim, then your problem isn’t that you don’t believe that what’s happening isn’t real. The problem is that you suspended your disbelief all too well. That’s why we’re usually afraid, on some level. There’s a background anxiety that pervades much of our lives, if only just below the level of consciousness. That fear takes up most of our moments. A couple posts ago in, I mentioned that the majority of mental content is negative. Our brains prioritize bad news because it gives us a survival edge. If we’re attuned to possible danger, we may escape the predator and live to fight another day. Most of what you think doesn’t make you happy. And this applies, BTW, to dream content as well.

The second thing that drama, dreams and simulations have in common is that the stakes seem high. Because you suspend your disbelief, you believe the stakes over which your life is ‘fought’ are real. If you commit a crime and go to prison, that seems really unfortunate. If you get sick, that too, seems like a bad thing. Yet not only are the stakes real-seeming, but they end up being very high. In fact, they end up being life and death, for in the sim/dream/drama into which you’ve entered, you’ve invented this imaginary state called death, which seems to be the opposite of life, its cessation. I suppose it’s necessary to raise the stakes so high. Think about it: would you want to watch a thriller where the stakes weren’t life and death? You’d be bored if the stakes weren’t that high.

What Jung taught is that the drama you’ve auditioned for has a reason. The hero moves the story forward by going after what she wants. In scenes, actors have objectives. They want something. In the scene on Weathertop, Frodo just wants to survive the onslaught of the Ring Wraiths.

Scenes are made up of beats, which are the rhythm of the scene, the smaller movements, the timing of the actor’s business and dialogue. In one beat of the scene on Weathertop, Frodo’s on his ass, trying to dodge the sword of the Witch-king. His objective is to duck and weave, as a boxer might. Scenes, too, compose sequences of scenes, and the character may have an objective covering the sequence. In the sequence following the attack on Weathertop, Frodo’s goal is just survive the wound which the Nazgul delivered. Sequences of scenes make the acts of a play or a movie, usually three. In each Act, the actor may have an objective common to that Act. The Acts comprise the story. A character has a superobjective which motivates all of her acts throughout the play. For Frodo, his superobjective is to destroy the ring.

Think of your life in a similar way. You have an objective in the moment, and you have a superobjective which comprises the destiny of your whole life. What you do – what you choose, what you think, what you say right now – may not seem related to your ultimate fate, but neither did Frodo’s attempt to avoid the wound caused by the Ringwraith seem to have anything to do with his ultimate goal of destroying the ring. Unless you knew the whole story of Lord of the Rings, unless you saw the beginning, when Gandalf assigned to Frodo his task, you’d be lost in the beats and the business of the individual scenes. And that’s what happens to us in our lives: we become lost in the details and lose sight of our ultimate goal.

But it’s all connected. Living matter is composed of particles which make up atoms which comprise molecules which bind to form cells, which make tissues that make up organs that create systems that comprise our bodies. In the same way, the beat of the scene – this moment of your life – is the mortar that holds together the whole thing.

We’re supposed to be learning something here; maybe many things, who knows? That’s the point. We’re supposed to forget that we’re just participating in a play, a part of us in the audience watching another part of us up there on the stage, playing out the drama. Yet in the end, all the unsuccessful chase after money and power is just made-up poignancy, just manufactured pathos and grief. You learn the lesson the situations of the simulation point to, because the simulation itself isn’t the point. You get lost in the details when you begin to take them literally, when you start to take this life too seriously. But in the end, you don’t pay a price any more than an actor pays a price for dying in a movie. For in the end, the ultimate adversary – death – only seems to triumph. Yet it can’t win because it’s not real.

If your life here is a drama, then it’s also not real. Why take it all so seriously if the stakes are really nothing more than the stakes in a game, or in a movie or a dream? Why fret so much about it all if the stakes are really nothing?

© 2019 by Michael C. Just

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