“Churches and trains, they all look the same to me now.”
Amsterdam, Gregory Alan Isakov
A months old conversation I had with a friend keeps replaying in my mind. “Teenagers have this thing they like to say, ‘It’s all just movies.’”
It was uttered with great concern, a commentary perhaps, on the younger generation’s unwillingness to take life seriously. Perhaps it’s our screens that are to blame. With our eyes fixed to screens so much of the time, it’s easy to equate reality out there with our digital realities. But then, human beings have been confusing reality since our beginning. Wars have been fought over mixed up realities.
It feels silly to me, writing this; after all, who am I? I’m just a story within a story, sharing thoughts with stories. (As the teens are prone to say, It’s all just movies.)
It was not so long ago that I spent the bulk of my waking hours in constant worry over all the things I should have been doing, but was, either due to external roadblocks or my own lack of ability, unable to do. I recall a moment on a therapists couch, breaking down in tears while describing a picture my son had made at school. It was posted on the wall near my desk at work, and every time I looked at it, a surge of anxiety would shoot through my body. The picture made me anxious because it was a steady reminder of the fleeting nature of childhood, and it made me think of all the ways I was blowing it as a parent and how very little time I had left to get it right. That same picture is still above my desk today. When I see it now, it just makes me smile.
The reasons for this change are likely more complicated than I realize, but if there’s one thing I can put a finger on, it’s that I’ve managed to remove the ideas of should and could from my thinking, replacing those fictions with simply what Is.
In Michael Gungor’s wonderful book, “This: Becoming Free”, he tells a parable of a man who’s dedicated himself to not walk his dog in the rain. The man is disgusted by all the grossness associated with walking one’s dog in the rain—the cold, the wet shoes, the way it makes his dog smell like a pile of rotting leaves. He spends an absurd amount of time plotting ways to not walk his dog in the rain; he journals continuously about his failures and successes, and sometimes gazes out the window on rainy days, casting judgement on those foolish enough to walk their own dogs in the rain. His whole life is consumed by efforts to not walk his dog in the rain. On days when he finds himself out in the rain with leash in hand, he is crushed with remorse. On rainy days when he manages to stay indoors, he’s still thinking about whether he will fail the next time it rains. On one such day, as he looks through his window at another lowly soul, walking her dog in the rain, it occurs to him he’s never even owned a dog.
If you’re confused by this parable, you’re not alone. I didn’t understand it either when I first heard it, and if you catch me at the wrong moment on the wrong day, I’m likely to have forgotten what little I’ve come to understand. But there are moments, thankfully more common now than they used to be, when the apparent chaos of the day gives way to a pause; I look down at the leash in my hand and realize there is nothing at the other end. In fact, there isn’t even a leash.
It’s all just movies.
The human mind is strange and wonderful. We are creators by nature. We are story making machines, and our stories are good, the kind you can get lost in. When you have a story good enough to get lost in, then you have something you can build upon, and so we’ve done exactly this, built entire societies upon our stories.
You know a good story when you see it, because your body tells you so. This is why you cry when you watch a sad movie and why you jump from your seat during a thriller, when the bad guy pops out to attack the hero. The story is so good, you become lost in it. Your body can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality.
Our lives away from the screen are not much different, when you think about it.
We could carry this metaphor further if we wanted. If our lives are like movies, who’s the director? The producer? Who wrote the script? The further we go, the more we realize the futility of describing a metaphor with other metaphors. If there is something True, something tangible behind all our layered stories, it is something that cannot be described, only experienced.
Maybe that’s the difference in me now, the guy who can smile at his child’s art piece, versus the one who cried snotty tears on a therapist’s sofa. It’s the change that comes when I loosen my grip on stories and experience the indescribable that lies beneath.