NOTE: This post really embodies why I named this “The Sciolist Blog.” For the next few weeks I'll be posting some of my thoughts on here. Take it all with a grain of salt, a sort of rambling composed on a whim one night as opposed to a thesis paper. If you notice something wrong, or want to add something, leave a comment! Enjoy!
What, fundamentally, makes good stories good? Well, to me, the essence of the question lies in characters and their choices. A human, a bug, a rat, whatever, with a specific temperament, is given a problem. Confronted with that situation, they make a decision. Plot is what we call the result of that decision. Setting is the circumstances yielding that decision. Of course, inaction also counts as a choice.
It is the characters that make us care. We only worry about a volcano erupting because of those living under it, and what their reactions will be. It is the media that focuses on character that we often deem truly great (*cough* Avatar: The Last Airbender *cough*).
But there's an even deeper answer lurking here. Having recently read Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and a specific passage from Capra’s System View of Life, I found myself thinking about the connections between story, individual choice, meaning, and reality.
We all know that science describes certain “truths” about the physical world. Conservation of energy. Gravity. Entropy. I could go on. But what we fail to recognize is that in the same way that we observe the universe, almost all of us constantly observe the drama of actors through movies, shows, and books. For many of us, we watch this drama on Netflix. I think that in the same way that we derive scientific law from physical data, we derive rules of beneficial behavior from social data.
Truth. Kindness. Justice. These virtues are not abstract philosophical concepts. They are the result of the greatest experiment on earth: history itself. Stories contain thousands, if not millions of years of data from countless observations of personal action and interactions between humans. Culture embeds these stories into us, almost to the point where each of us has an innate sense of virtue. When you read a book, or watch a show on Netflix, what are you doing if not engaging in a behavioral, sociological experiment? Characters placed into a setting, each with their own temperament, waiting to react? Sound familiar?
However, there’s a fundamental difference between scientific and behavioral rules. This is a result of our consciousness. The physical world is not inherently conscious, but humans are. Our values are therefore not simply observations of interactions among humans, but the solutions we derive to the problem of future interactions. They take into account our ability of discernment, our “free will” to produce a path that betters the world for everyone. And meaning arises from our ability to conceive of correct decisions and successfully act them out.
Now, we can see how this is applicable in our own lives. The potential future exists in a space before us. It is our decisions that cause the infinite possibility of tomorrow to become today. There are thousands of things that you could do with that hour before bed. In our modern world, many of us have access to a smart device and the Internet. We have a limitless repository of knowledge accessible at our fingertips. And so the choice is: to Netflix, or not to Netflix?
Now, I’m not saying that Netflix is inherently bad. As you can probably tell, I am a firm believer in the value of good stories. But, it recently occurred to me that it is quite ironic that, in order to procrastinate working and making our own important decisions, we turn to watch other people work and make their own important decisions.
Ironic, but entirely predictable, fundamental even. I really think there is a valuable insight here.
You see, in your life, you have an ideal. A way you would like to be seen. A way you would like to act. A way you would like others to think of you. A way you would like to think of yourself.
And like any well written character, you have wants, needs, and dreams. Perhaps you have a business you want to start, a relationship you want to develop. Perhaps you have a family to support and need to do well in school. Perhaps you simply have an important exam, an essay, or a project you’d like to do well on. Perhaps you really should be working on it right now, and for whatever ever reason, instead of watching Netflix you’ve landed here.
Well, hello. You should probably get back to working. But only after you’ve finished reading this, of course.
The truth is, us humans are hardwired to be curious, active investigators of the world around us. It is a shame that the education system quite literally pounds this trait out of practically everyone… But that is a discussion for another time. Stories, if anything else, offer us a way to analyze the behavior of other human beings.
This is true of stories involving all types of characters, but for the sake of this limited article I’ll focus on Campbells’ monomyth. We are drawn to heroes who act valiantly in the face of world-ending destruction because we wish to think that if we were faced with Voldemort or Sauron or Darth Vader or the Fire Lord we could nobly conquer them. Like Campbell describes, our lives are a constant cycle of traversal into the unknown and return with something gained. In other words, we are confronted with a decision, we make that decision, and analyze the effects. The characters we admire make decisions that we admire, that have outcomes that we admire. We love them because in many ways, we want to copy them. This is how we all learn, from infant to adult. It is how I learned to write, to read and to speak. Emulation.
We see ourselves as heroes, and the heroes of our stories constantly make tough decisions to draw the good out of a potentially disastrous future. Why? Because at the most fundamental level, this is what we wish to do in every moment of our lives. Live up to the ideal we have set for ourselves. Make the decision to work toward our goals, even when it is hard. Stand up for those without a voice, lend a helping hand to those who need it. Heroes are characters who, despite the struggle, ultimately make the choice that leads to the saving of the world.
But our lives are constantly riddled with little Voldemorts (see what I did there?). At every turn we are failing, miserably at times. To be conscious is to be aware of all of our faults, all of our defeats and ways that we don’t live up to our ideal. And so, our hope to emulate quickly leads to envy of others. If consciousness is a burden, jealousy is a poison, and social media breeds it like nothing else. Each of us, in extremely formative years of self identity (16-24), “spend[s] a median of 3 hours a day on social media.” We watch as everyone around us achieves success, positive social interaction, and bliss, or so it seems. Meanwhile, we sit and binge our third season of The Office on Netflix. Anything to prevent our confrontation with our own choices, because we know we will fall short. We know that there is just no way that we can ever live up to the person we wish to be.
And maybe, we won’t.
But maybe, we should stop beating ourselves up. Maybe we should just let ourselves watch, and not constantly disparage our lack of progress towards our goals, because we know we are working on it. Maybe, we should treat ourselves as if we are someone that we care about, because the relationship we have with ourselves is no different than our relationship with someone else.
Perhaps I’m talking to myself here. And obviously, there’s a fine line there. We’re going to fall short of our ideals over and over again. But it is in failing that we know we’ve made a decision, even if it was a decision to simply do nothing. Because despite what we deem as the failures in our lives, tomorrow always exists. And we will always have the conscious choice to turn that potential into something meaningful. And the fact that we even have that choice is pretty cool.
I believe it is the nature of humans to strive towards an ideal. Every moment is potential, and every second we live is a second spent creating the reality of the future. Our stories are experiments containing an amalgam of actions of other humans, and in the same way as scientific laws are developed from physical phenomena, beneficial social rules can be found in our drama. We as humans are active investigators of our environments who strive to create the best possible future, for ourselves, and hopefully, for others. Our emulation of admirable characters has the dangerous possibility of leading to hopelessness and jealousy. But my personal belief is that while the nature of human thought might be heavily deterministic, while the obstacles set in your way are unpredictable and can seem insurmountable, I truly believe that our discernment of the correct path and our commitment to it actively shapes our reality, in ways that cascade across the nonlinear system of society. We form ideas about the future in our imaginations, and use our actions to create them. Every choice we make can be a step toward the good. What an incredible gift it is, to be aware instead of ignorant, to be a deckhand on this great cosmic ship.
In fact, our study of the quantum world has given us evidence to believe that our existence might be the only reason that anything exists at all. Perhaps, it is only because we are here to observe it that our world takes form.
But that’s a story for another time, for a writer with a greater understanding of those things than I.
Thanks for reading. I’m thinking about posting more of these, where I just talk about what I’ve been thinking during the week. Let me know if you like it!