Monthly Archives: February 2011

Now Starring in a Life Story Near You

When I was a child walking down the streets of my hometown to music lessons, I used to fantasize that I was the star in a movie trailer. I’d sing to myself some theme song, and I’d work out the plot of the film and my role in it, with an authoritative voice-over that might have begun: “In a world….” Never did I have a supporting role in these fantasies. In fact, I’d be willing to go out on a limb and suggest that had I considered myself a bit or supporting player in the story of my life, that would have been evidence of rather serious mental or emotional distress. 

Western culture programs us to think of ourselves as individuals, that is, the stars of our lives. Identification with the collective—the team, the community, the nation—is not abandoned or ignored, but it is definitely secondary to our identification as unique Selves. For hundreds of years, philosophers and sociologists have debated the evolution of the concept of Selfhood, with many questioning its very existence. The “Matrix” series presented a chilling portrait of our delusions of selfhood, and we need look no further than the selection in our local bookstore (or the lack thereof) to notice that many if not all of our so-called life choices are severely curtailed. Do we truly operate our individuals, or as members of a generation, as the recipients of a marketing strategy? Are our opinions and desires our own?

That said, the Self is a useful starting point for a discussion of perception. An understanding of the varying perceptions and perspectives experienced by varying selves helps us live as social animals. If you are sitting across from me, my right is your left. So is the table on the left or right? Depends on where you’re sitting. There are times, of course, when it is useful to think of ourselves as individuals, although it strikes me that mostly it is more useful to think in terms of the collective. It’s more efficient—think of the European Union. It can also be more satisfying; the Green Pay Packers fans are celebrating their shared victory, while the Steelers are supporting each other in their mourning. 

Storytellers often play with well-known tales by varying the perspective, that is, the star of the story. This has been done to great effect with The True Story of the Three Little Pigs as told by A. Wolf  (author: Jon Scieszka), and well as Wicked, the story of the Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West (author: Gregory Maguire). The most impressive of these efforts, I would say, is the 1950 movie Rashomon (director: Akira Kurosawa). Unique individuals with their unique perspectives make the world, and stories, interesting.

That’s one of the things that democracy is all about. It can lead to conflict, but for this individual, it’s worth the trouble.