“Most people think life sucks, and then you die. Not me. I beg to differ. I think life sucks, then you get cancer, then your dog dies, your wife leaves you, the cancer goes into remission, you get a new dog, you get remarried, you owe ten million dollars in medical bills but you work hard for thirty-five years and you pay it back and then — one day — you have a massive stroke, your whole right side is paralyzed, you have to limp along the streets and speak out of the left side of your mouth and drool but you go into rehabilitation and regain the power to walk and the power to talk and then — one day — you step off a curb at Sixty-seventh Street, and BANG you get hit by a city bus and then you die. Maybe.” – Denis Leary
I’ve been very interested in Derren Brown’s tv shows on “Fear & Faith”, exploring how a faith in something can be created, and how having faith can be a good thing. People with phobias are unknowingly given a placebo to help them overcome their fears and told to keep a video diary documenting the changes they feel. It’s pretty straight-forward stuff: the placebo works, but is reinforced through, effectively, cognitive behavioural therapy.
What interested me more was a very short segment where a girl was told she was going to take part in a show called “intervention”: as she went about her day to day life, in among the normal strangers she met would be people and situations deliberately placed to teach her something. She would have no idea who or what they were. As with the phobias, she would keep a video diary discussing it and speculating what the perceived interventions were trying to teach her. She came away from it resolving to be happier, more confident and to worry less. The twist, of course, was there were no interventions.
The idea of this intervention show reminds me a bit of the film The Game with Michael Douglas, where a wealthy businessman becomes embroiled (I love that word: embroiled. You only ever see it in a plot synopsis) in a live-action game that takes over his entire life. Either that or what he initially thinks is a game is an elaborate and all-consuming con. Or possibly just his descent into madness. Either way, his life becomes interspersed with people and situations who are part of “The Game”.
In a more convulted way, David Cronenberg explores something similar in his film eXistenZ, where an inexperienced player is introduced to an all-immersive game where the characters are “stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don’t understand”. To make things worse, he is told you have to play the game to find out why you are playing the game. Once again, some “game characters” aren’t important, while others have specific roles to play.
But what does any of this have to do with anything?
A colleague told me over dinner recently, on a business trip, that she thinks everything happens for a reason — and that if one thing doesn’t work out, it’s because something better is waiting. I responded politely that I think it’s a nice philosophy, but I don’t agree: I don’t think things happen for a reason, and if something you want doesn’t happen it does not mean that something better is around the corner. Sometimes, things get worse. Sometimes, life sucks and then it gets worse. And then it gets better, and then it gets worse. And, like Denis Leary says, “Then you die. Maybe”.
I don’t think this is a pessimistic approach to life. Because I don’t think a lack of meaning or a lack of intervention doesn’t mean we can’t choose to learn and strive to be better. Do people come into our lives for a reason? Or “a season, or a lifetime” as it is popular to say? If you put it like that, any interaction with anyone can be described: a “season” could be 5 minutes on the bus. But what about “a reason”?
That suggests a plan, and as far as I’m concerned there is no plan. There is no plan, no plot, no rules, no game. If you are in a relationship with someone who becomes physically or emotionally abusive they have not come into your life “for a reason”. You can learn any lessons you choose from it: that is up to you, but nothing was planned — and it does not mean something good is “waiting”.
On the other hand, free will is a very complicated and contentious issue. How much of our choices are really free, and how many are made acting on unconscious decisions that have been knock-on effects of other things? Our environment, our upbringing, our emotions — even marketing — can affect or predict the choices we will make. When someone gets into a lift with other people, there are models that show where they will stand — and how the other people will move. This can be applied on a much larger scale: it’s not bad and it’s not good. It doesn’t mean that even if our choices and reactions are largely the result of things beyond our control that there is any coherent plan: or that things as a whole are either good or bad.
It’s only what we choose to learn from.