I Should Think Things Through

(Part of) My Problem with Popular Fiction

What a lot of good movies and good books do is tell smart stories with emotional weight. Something that resembles life as we know it and maybe explains a small portion of it back to us, as if seeing it unfold, removing ourselves from the experiences, enables us to learn. They lay out cause and effect to make life digestible.

All these stories, necessarily, have traceable and logical beginning, middle, and ends. They all make sense (more or less). And many things that happen in the stories have meaning, like Chekhov’s Gun. All the little details can lead to complex storytelling but still understandable and possible to unravel. But when everything, or most things, have meaning, and there are clear causes and responses to each and every problem (how would a story make sense if it was random or unexplained?), the stories don’t resemble anything like life. Movies, and many books, tell us that life is understandable. That it makes sense and if you follow one event it will logically lead to another. Whether the plot is full of superheroes or relatable, quirky nerds, it follows a logical progression to an end. This follows from what we previously told you.

Our brains don’t really work that neatly. Life is hardly ever so clean. What we’re doing now isn’t always the result of something we can track back. There’s no doubt the events we remember can play a role in shaping us, but coming to terms with some event in our past rarely fixes our present. Life is laid out in such simple terms in these stories. Even when complicated, it can’t match the complexity of someone’s actual thoughts, behavior, and motivation. Mostly because we aren’t always aware of our motivations. No matter how laser sharp our reasoning and hyper-focused our attention, the drivers of our lives are hidden from us. But stories, especially in movies, tell us we can understand. That Bruce Wayne became the Batman because his parents were murdered. But isn’t it possible that it’s simply the story Bruce tells himself? Isn’t it possible that the drive to become a vigilante hero was there (through a combination of his upbringing, values, experiences, and genes) and even if his parents had lived he would have become the Batman anyway?

But all the actual drivers are too difficult to track down. We resort to telling ourselves stories to explain ourselves because admitting that we truly don’t know why we behave a certain way or think a certain thing – the deep, unknowable reasons – is unsavory. It’s relinquishing control on something we feel is sacred, ourselves. But it’s the truth. No matter how much I want to point to a certain event to explain why I am one way and not another, there is no such cause. At best, it’s a tangle of causes that might be understood with a lot of exploration. At worst, that information isn’t available to to me. More of than not, it’s probably the worst case.


I Should Think Things Through

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