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Grand Narratives vs. Episodic Chapters: Is Your Life a TV Show or a Movie?

February 24, 2010

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Is your life a TV show or a movie?

When I was younger I had imaginary friends. Not any old imaginary friend though. No, mine were superheros. My family travelled a lot, never staying in one place more than 3 years at a time. During these times, I would make one or two ‘friends’ in every place. Though if I’m being honest, even though the qualifications for friendship as a child don’t stretch much further than a common interest in marbles, to call any of them friends is engaging in some extensive poetic license. Nonetheless, as soon as I’d start to feel comfortable I would be swept up again and relocated to another part of the world. being as this was back before the internet, letters and ‘pen pals’ were the only realistic way to keep in touch with anyone. But, traditional virtual relationships were just as unsatisfactory to an impatient-pre-pubescent kid as online networking is for any two bit social commentator with a coloumn deadline. So instead I had to manufacture ways to ‘keep in touch’ with my friends, and gradually they took up residence in my mind, and became part of an underground network of tween superheroes.

I collected characters from all over the place– from school, people I liked the look of in the supermarket or playground, people in my Little League, or people on TV (such as the entire cast of Party of Five— hello!). I imagined we had secret transportation where we rode scooters through an underground sewage network and would emerge in each other’s bathrooms through the tub, which would up for the right people. Very Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but hey, I’m an 80’s kid.

When I was younger, the superpowers were quite tame– one was a vampire, the other could run at the speed of light. As I got older, they became increasingly more nuanced and reflected a growing understanding of the dangers of the world (or my own emotional instability– you decide), with one having the power to infect anyone with AIDS, for example. And so on. We fought against a network of evil kid superheros, usually made up of those kids who bullied or made fun of me in school.

At some point the characters dropped their superpowers, and then started to play smaller and smaller roles in my imaginary life. Instead, partly to distance myself from a difficult adolescence, I began to see my life as a TV show. I played the main character, and friends and family supporting characters. If I had a fight with a friend in high school, they’d be killed off in the next season.

Essentially, I had created a coping mechanism by subconsciously conditioning myself to see my life as episodes within a larger season, which in turn fed into the larger ‘series’ that was my life. Think ‘Growing Pains’ or ‘Blossom’. Particular moments in my life would feel like the season finale, with a new ‘season’ starting soon that would bring different story arcs and a new episodic narrative into my life. Also, there were a lot of lesson-learning; my partner once accused me of living my life as if it was an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians: “there’s always a mini-drama and then a period of reflection and lesson-learning with you, isn’t there? It works on three-day cycles. Ridiculous.”

http://uk.movieposter.com/posters/archive/main/63/MPW-31949

Let's hope this isn't the movie you're basing your life on...

On the other hand, a friend of mine once told me the frustrations he felt with his girlfriend, who had the tendency to see her life as an epic movie, which in turn affected the way she made day-to-day decisions about her career and love life. For example, while he saw their break-up as the ‘end of a season’, she saw it as just one hiccup in a larger journey of true love.

The Bible, Koran and Torah, for example, and one would assume people who live by them, tend to follow a larger narrative on life: God created the earth, we live on it, Judgement Day comes. Easy. On the other hand, politics tends to be quite episodic– the past 8 years in American history could be viewed as part of a really depressing season of the West Wing, with spin-off shows to follow. In that sense, ‘Cheers’ would be to ‘Fraser’ what the ‘Global War on Terror’ is to ‘Blair’s Adventures as the Middle East Envoy’.

This got me thinking: does the way we view our life affect how we lead it? Is there a difference between looking at your life as one epic novel or movie (a grand narrative), or looking at it as a television series (episodic chapters)? Do people who see their lives as movies achieve more as they are more long-sighted, or are they just egotistical maniacs who try to find purpose and meaning in the most mundane things? Do episodic chapter people live more for the moment and are better able to learn and reflect on their day-to-day experiences, or are they just ADHD low-culture folks who can’t see the bigger picture and can’t plan for the long-term?

The question really boils down to: is this world we live in part of a larger narrative, or is life better lived in smaller episodic chapters, where there is an understanding that there is no undercurrent or grand purpose to life, but we can still keep on hoping that next season Rachel or Ross will stay together in the end?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Claude Van Inkins permalink*
    February 24, 2010 2:24 pm

    “When I was younger, the superpowers were quite tame– one was a vampire, the other could run at the speed of light. As I got older, they became increasingly more nuanced and reflected a growing understanding of the dangers of the world (or my own emotional instability– you decide), with one having the power to infect anyone with AIDS, for example.”

    Awesome… Totally fucked up, but awesome.

  2. diana permalink
    February 24, 2010 2:37 pm

    i am personally living a grand narrative and every peek of drama enriches my sense of the narrative and drives me even further down (up?) the narrative. it is a very self-indulgant excercise and the hero is most egotistic. ross and rachel are doomed never to be together in my narrative, but the journey is the most romantic and more fulfilling love. my narrative is embarassingly sappy

  3. IKR? permalink
    February 24, 2010 10:14 pm

    Maybe it’s the other way round and we make TV shows in seasons and movies with longer story arcs because that’s the way life is.

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