The Pleasantville Problem

 

1375 Relax and Succeed - It is not possible

When it comes to storytelling, there are only so many ways in which characters and plot directions can mix. This means we often see the same essential story types in many unique and different forms.

Despite the existence of those forms, every now and again someone creates something classic. Something with themes so universal that the art can travel smoothly and easily through time. In this case I’m referring to a film that quite literally travels smoothly through time.

Pleasantville was made in pre-9/11 1998. Back then it was a more innocent story about women and their roles in society, the acceptance of people of colour, and it cast a bad light on oppression of all forms. It is an anti-conformity, pro-novelty and independence story.

Today everyone would think the story was about immigration or trans-gendered issues or race relations, which demonstrates how a Classic works in action. Even though it’s external context has changed, it remains just as relevant as when it was discussing the different issues that were being analyzed when the film was released. That ability to stay relevant by focusing on universal principles is what will allow this film to move through time as a Classic.

Even from just the film trailer, it’s easy to comprehend the fundamental plot about a brother and sister who end up trapped in a 1950’s TV show. Within that reality, no one knows any thought or feeling that doesn’t already exist within the scripts that they live out as literal and figurative black and white truths.

When the brother and sister introduce novelty and choice –and especially the variation in feelings those things cause– it’s shocking to everyone. But as other characters also engage in novelty –and the variable feelings that go with it– people begin to feel increasingly more alive. On screen, colour starts seeping into their previous black and white lives.

That premise is a great metaphor for how we will live out our identities. Most of us go to jobs we dislike, dress or behave in ways we don’t like, to please people we don’t like. We play a role in our families, and with our friends, and for our jobs. When things get difficult the range or motion for our identity can slowly be narrowed to the point of feeling more like a psychological straight-jacket.

This turns us into ego-based robots within our own lives, where we do everything unconsciously and we live by rote. We don’t want to function like slot cars or train sets. We are not fixed on some track, where we must only enact the same choices and over, all while we have internalized thought-wars in our heads about how we want change.

Like the people of Pleasantville, we must shake ourselves awake and recognize our flexibility. In watching the film again I felt like Toby Maguire. My course and this blog is nothing more than me shaking people awake. It is us that strangles the colour out of our lives. We are the ones that choose to repeat the same tones until our mind takes their existence for granted.

(Don’t watch this if you want to watch the movie, it contains a fairly small spoiler.)

For anyone who has never done it before, it is worth it to make efforts to break free of our habits –to make decisions that reflect our essence. Rather than cling to the security of what we know, we are better to leave our wombs of consistency.

We are better to escape by using our presence. Our resulting awareness will expose to us that it has always been us that was building our repetitive realities. We do that by continuing to think of the world and ourselves in the same consistent ways. But with that very same power, we can become conscious and choose instead to build ourselves entirely new realities.

Whether it is someone suddenly realizing they need to leave their job, or that they can live without someone and are getting divorced, or that they can move past their grief, or overcome a negative self-image –when we change our thoughts about who we are and what can happen, the world around us changes.

Consistency has a kind of inertia that compels us not to disrupt its predictability. But without free will, there is no actual life being lived. Yes, living in the moment without knowing what is next is a larger and more mysterious feeling than the narrow path of predictability can incite within us. But that is the point.

Yes, a more colourful life also means we experience greater intensities of fear and sadness and anger. But it also means we feel more awe, more joy and more love. This is why I most often hear from people, when they are literally so sick of their patterns that they will even consider novelty as a way out.

As scary as some new and larger reality may seem, I have yet to have anyone ask to go back to a life with less freedom or colour. That’s worth thinking about the next time any of us feels compelled to hide from life.

peace. s

Know Thyself

1335 Relax and Succeed - Where do our choices come from

I’ve noted before that one of the advantages of working with younger people is that they’ll often play video games, and there will be patterns to which games they are attracted to. This can tell me (or a parent) a massive amount about how that kid sees the world and their place in it.

Do they like cooperative games, or ones where it’s every person for themselves? Do they like to destroy enemies, or co-opt them? What kind of avatar do they use? After all, that is the face they chose to show the world. That is how they want the world to see them. That might be a facetious use of a character or wishful thinking, we have to listen more to know. But the things we’re interested in say a great deal about who we are.

This applies to fashion, hairstyles, what movies or series we watch, what books we’ll read, and what sort of jobs we’ll take, as well as what people or organizations we’ll invest energy in. Despite the fact that these are completely guided by how we see the world, it is amazing how few people even begin to look for patterns in the things they consume.

Why do we like some characters in stories and not others? Why do we like some kinds of stories and not others? What do our tastes tell us about our view of the world?

And what about those closest to us? Parents, siblings, spouses, children, business partners, coaches etc. What do they like and what can that tell us about them and how can that knowledge improve our relationships?

Some people (like me) prefer to spend time with people smarter than us, and different from us, who can challenge us with ways of thinking we haven’t encountered before. Others are more intimidated by new information or change and prefer to associate with only those that already agree with their current world view.

Do we like books about weak individuals? Are our favourite movies all about little people defeating big people? Do we dislike ambiguous endings and abstract art, or do we prefer it? Do we like games where we build things, or destroy things?

1335 Relax and Succeed - The things we're interested in

Do we like board or card games that require tricking others, or by negotiating in good faith? Do we avoid playfully spiteful board games or card games (Aggravation and Spite and Malice have those names for a reason), or do we prefer games with multiple ways to win?

Maybe we like shocking hairstyles or fashion that helps us gauge how open new people are. Or maybe we’re a teacher, and we prefer the quiet studious kids to those that are more kinetic and that might become ballet dancers or athletes. Knowing that can help us make decisions about our joy and our growth.

Since knowing ourselves can add value to our lives, let’s take the rest of the week and let’s look at our own lives. Let’s study our bookshelves, music collections, wardrobe and even our relationships etc. And then let us ask ourselves what these things say about how we see the world and our place in it.

While no way to be or set of interests is right or wrong, these things do influence which decisions we’ll make, and therefore which challenges we’ll face in life. They’ll also inform where we’ll feel comfortable, or where we’ll experience more stress. These represent our ‘crosses to bear.’

The aim here isn’t to improve ourselves or others, it’s merely to know ourselves and others better because that creates more empathy and better relations.  And that knowledge can help us enormously when it comes to making decisions about our future.

For those that engage in this seriously, if you’ve never thought of yourself in these terms before, prepare for some surprising self-discoveries along the way. We’ll all likely find patterns that we didn’t even know we subconsciously had chosen.

All this being the case, let’s all take the rest of the week and get to know ourselves. After all, we’re worth it.

peace. s

The Enlightenment Misconception

My accident lead me to question reality in a very fundamental way at a very young age. Once I was old enough to embark on a serious spiritual journey, I sought out teachers who might be able to answer some of my deeper questions about reality. Unfortunately, I was inclined to do what you likely do, which is I looked for the wrong people.

With no intention of being ironic, I thought I should look for someone super peaceful, living some super peaceful and respected life. I thought I would recognise them as having achieved something grand and meaningful. But I misunderstood what grand and meaningful were, and so I rarely found them. Because most of them weren’t wearing saffron robes, they weren’t doing yoga and they their lives were surprisingly ordinary.

Part of the reason for this is that once you’ve understood what you’re trying to understand, you realise that no one can take this journey for you, and so no one needs your help. You realise that all you were supposed to do is live your life without the constant thought-based evaluation of how you’re doing in relation to some imaginary goal. Our lives would be instantly more enjoyable if only we would stop second guessing ourselves.

Rather poetically, the first time my life became truly difficult was the same time that, by most external perspectives, I would have appeared to have been failing. I surrendered a life of status and money and power–all in the highly coveted and ever-popular media world (I truly had an awesome job)–to pursue a much smaller, much more obscure life doing something that a lot of people I knew thought was crazy. (This.) But that’s the key isn’t it? They thought that.

Thanks to that accident, in the midst of what should have been a broken heart, a huge sense of betrayal and a financial disaster, I was left with the opposite question most people  would have. I couldn’t figure out why I was okay with the idea of life being so difficult. This isn’t to say I liked it; it was just more that I accepted it. Any second guessing I did in my consciousness was profoundly painful and the pain acted as a very meaningful teacher.

I could occasionally (or at times even frequently), get caught up in personal thoughts that resisted my experience. These felt like hell. I felt very singular, as though it was all happening to me in particular. The suffering helped me grasp that when I felt better, I felt less like this was my life and more like an actor in a much larger play.

When I wasn’t thinking the resistant thoughts, I was peaceful inside with the knowledge that, like all roles, once I was finished playing this character I would either assume yet another or I would die and return to my real self. I was peaceful in the knowledge that nothing in the play I was performing in would change that.

What I had before was wonderful and I am deeply grateful for the experience. Almost every role I played in this giant improv has been an enjoyable one. I got to go to amazing places and meet incredible people and work on enjoyable and meaningful work. But I realised that the reason I was doing it all was not because other people felt it was a great life, but because I did.

Just like with movies and TV, being a loving and supportive caregiver to my parents was simply what I truly felt compelled to do. The financial strains and time and energy challenges all happen in the external world, but internally more of my time than ever is spent being in and sharing love.

I love making art. I love teaching people to see their strengths and opportunities. But there is something deeply meaningful and profound in helping your beloved father as he struggles with new challenges in the bathroom. There are moments where we look into each others eyes and we feel badly for what we’re putting each other through, but we both move quickly past those to simply being grateful that we’re in it together. That vulnerability is what makes the moment so powerful and filled with love.

I fail more than I ever have before. When my expectations are too high I lose patience when it doesn’t help. When I think too much I feel tired and alone. But most of the time, when we’re just making our way through it without all the thoughts about how we wish it was, I realise that I have never loved my parents more or felt closer to them. And that is why, if you do whatever you do with a lot of inner peace, even failing is a form of success.

peace. s

Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.