It was the morning coffee conversation, the one where I perch on the end of my son’s bed while he considers getting out of it. Even fuelled by good, freshly ground beans, that can take some time, especially if we start talking… and that invariably happens.
Today, the subject that caught out attention was the media…. TV, films, books, the works… and how fiction inevitably draws us in to a place where our own lives can seem bland in comparison to their imaginary ‘reality’. From the formulaic drama of romantic novels, to the condensed ‘reality’-bytes of the soaps, their storylines raise unconscious expectations and, in contrast, our own experience of life can appear to be lacking in the essential ingredients, plot twists and the rollercoasting emotions that are their stock in trade.
No good tale goes from beginning to end without a well-planned story arc of highs and lows. Even when a book or film spans an entire lifetime in a couple of hundred pages or minutes, telling only the highlights and barely hinting at the calm years in between, it is the peaks and troughs that capture our attention and engage our emotions… and it is by those that we can be tempted to judge our own lives. Vague dissatisfaction and the insidious thought that we are ‘missing something’ creeps in, even though our logical minds and fragile hearts would really not want to be put through the proverbial mill with the intensity displayed in fiction.
For most of us, the majority of our lives will be spent doing things that are routine, humdrum, necessary… but not necessarily dramatic. Vast swathes of time are swallowed by tasks and actions that barely register. Even though all such moments seem to be stored in memory, they are generally relegated to levels so deep that they only resurface when some chain of association dredges them up again. In contrast, the times of joy, perfect peace, pain and grief seem much easier to recall, and, were we to write our life stories, it is of these moments that we would tell.
It is not the fault of book or film that we may end up questioning whether or not our lives match up to those of other, albeit fictional, lives… it is something within us. Fiction can be a great teacher, allowing us to safely experience situations we might not otherwise meet and, from that imaginary encounter, we may learn to understand and empathise with others. It only becomes a problem when we begin to make the invidious comparisons that change our expectations and leave us with a hazy fear that we are less than who we are.
No-one knowing my son’s story would ever say it lacked drama, yet he has felt that uneasy dissatisfaction after watching a film. My own life had had plenty of ups and downs. In fact, most lives, if condensed to just the ‘good bits’ or major events would make gripping stories. Yet, unlike the characters of book or screen, it is precisely the quiet, in-between moments that make life so worth living.
The daily touch of sun, snow or rain on your skin, the smile of a child, the first time you wash a pair of someone else’s socks and go all gooey and tender… Watching a ladybird, a butterfly, or the birds nesting in spring. Snuggling with a dog, the fingers of an infant curling around yours, or the touch of a hand reaching out in the night for your own… These are not the big things of which movies are made, nor are they the plot points that would sell a book. These are the essence of the human experience…and far more beautiful than any fiction.