I’m watching The Wire right now.
It’s powerful. It’s challenging. It makes you think.
I fucking hate it.
David Simon, how dare you make me care about these people and then not at least give me the foolish comfort that it will all work out in the end? This is a tried-and-true Hollywood formula! Why are you denying me? I want redemption. I want reconciliation. I want an emotionally satisfying happy god-damn ending and WHY won’t you give it to me??? And how dare you inflict the senselessness of reality on me? I DON’T WANT REALITY.
This is the power of a narrative. We crave it.
We know deep down that life is meaningless and random, but we refuse to accept that. We HAVE to make sense of it all, somehow.
And that’s why we tell stories.
We tell ourselves stories all the time: This happened, then this happened, and this was the result. It’s an over-simplification, sure, but how could we ever really be aware of, let alone understand all the contributing factors?
So we don’t… We tell ourselves a story.
And over last eon or so, we’ve gotten really, really good at crafting just the kinds of stories that we like to hear.
Like the Hero’s Journey. Campbell posited that almost every tale that has captured the human imagination through the ages has followed this formula, give or take.
I don’t think he’s far off.
A story, a narrative, makes sense of the senseless. It’s how we grapple with information. We can’t read a grocery list without thinking, “scallops? salsa? mango? What the hell are you making?” The human brain will try to make sense of it all by forming a narrative.
Nowadays there’s movement to make sure your life makes a good story. I can really relate to that, because, that’s pretty much a mantra of mine: “It might be shitty/stupid/ridiculous right now, but someday it’s going to be a great story.” I mean, shit, I’ve got some pretty good stories right now.
So as much as wanting to be epic sounds like a really great idea, life really doesn’t work like that.
It’s a myth we’ve built up throughout the modern era. And the only reason it could exist is because mere survival stopped being the metric of a satisfied life.
It strokes our vanity to imagine that the universe loves us and wants us to be happy and fulfilled. But what of the child brides in India? What of the victims of ethnic cleansing? What of David Simon’s project kids, half of whom don’t see their 20th birthdays?
Life is senseless.
It’s a complex interplay of causality and probability, shattering predictions with casual indifference. We tell stories not because they’re true, but because they satisfy our need for meaning.
Let me make that plain: They are not true.
They do not exist, in any objective sense.
Now, this is always the part in stories, where the hero has this crushing crisis of faith. It nearly destroys him, because he is the hero and if the story isn’t real, then neither is he.
Yeah, the reality is, nothing and no one has meaning, in the great, cosmic scheme of things.
In the words of the illustrious Dr. Evil: “Boo-frickety-hoo.”
But here’s the thing: If you want to tell a good story about your life be a good storyteller.
Tell a story that’s REAL. Tell a story without the fairy tale tropes, where maybe the girl didn’t get her prince, and you know what? Life went on and she was happy anyway.
Tell a story about despair and how it changes you. Don’t tell the story of how you’re a better person for it– — — that bullshit’s all relative. Tell the story of what’s different now, and that you survived.
Tell me a story that makes me understand what you went through. Don’t tell me there was glory! I know there wasn’t. I know you did what you had to do because it was all you could do. But I still want to know that story because I want to know YOU.
We all want to be epic. We want to leave our mark– we want that affirmation: Here’s my life.
This is what it meant.
But we keep thinking in terms of Hollywood tropes– of good triumphing of evil, of things all working out, of happy endings of every shape and kind. Like the sunshine coming out after a rain. Black and white.
We need to write other kinds of stories.
Stories that are real. Stories that are true.
Sarah Goshman and I are running a new class: Permission Slips for Epic Goals on May 15, 8pm EDT. You should check it out.