I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the paths we take through life. I like to think of it in terms of movies: what would make for an interesting plotline? You’d be surprised how much life can mimic the story arc of a good movie.
A good movie creates a contract with the audience: the conclusion will be satisfying. Think of the plotline as a map to this conclusion: a series of events along a path from Point A to Point B. The conclusion is foreshadowed by the events that precede it. The audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but when they look back at the movie, they need to see how one event followed from another. Thus, the plot of a good movie has inevitability: the conclusion seems inevitable.
Complex stories have one plotline in the foreground, and several more plotlines in the background to provide context. Without context, everything is meaningless: this is why the best stories usually have subplots. But what story could be more complex than life itself? It stands to reason that life would have an infinite number of background plotlines, stretching backwards so far that we can’t even perceive them.
Think about the monitor you’re looking at right now. Doesn’t it have a plotline? That monitor has a story to tell, from the person who invented it, to the components it comprises, to its arrival in front of you. Everything in life has a plotline, but we’re generally only concerned with a few foreground plotlines. Life functions are not foreground plotlines in the West, since we’re not concerned with them unless they get in the way. The foreground plotlines of individual people are their emotional arcs: love and ambition.
If life is like a good movie, its foreground plot needs to have inevitability. There is a definite starting point to both of my plotlines; as soon as I was old enough to feel ambitious or in love, Point A was set. Of course I had no idea where Point B would be — I still don’t. Some people never do. But just like a good movie, I have a contract with life. I know when I’m satisfied, and I know, deep down, when I’ve reached the right conclusion.
My parents were together for twelve years before they broke up. Twelve years before my mother realized that she wasn’t in love. At some point, she looked back along the route of events that led her to where she was, and realized that she wasn’t heading to Point B anymore. Maybe it took her a long time, but she eventually saw it. It was inevitable, given a long enough time frame. Like the original ending of Fight Club, the events didn’t match the conclusion. Point B would be a surprise, yes, but it would never be a non sequitur. The movie adaptation changed the ending, and even the original author agrees that the new ending is more satisfying.
Love is the people you care about, and ambition is the things you want to accomplish. It took me a long time to make some real guesses about the conclusions of these arcs. Where is my Point B? I think I know, but I might have an epiphany someday, like my mother did. There’s nothing to do but continue along a path until I find the conclusion that seems inevitable.
I try not to worry about my life’s direction too much; at least, not in the abstracted sense. I’m still trying to find the right plotline, and it’s better to die trying than to never try at all. I have a contract with life, and I won’t give up until I fulfill it.