Familiar and New

Have you seen a movie recently? Heard a song? Would you describe it as original, or did it have echoes of other movies or other songs?

Everything around us is some kind of mixture of familiar and new. Things we recognize, and things we’re coming across for the first time. Ideas, people, experiences, sensations, places, and ways of seeing the world you already resonate with. And ones you’ve just encountered and aren’t sure about.

We each look for a desirable blend of familiar and new, whether we think of it in those terms or not. Yours is different than mine, which is different than hers. Familiarity makes us feel at home, safe, and comfortable. New things are often exotic, enticing, and compelling–though sometimes strange, distasteful, or just wrong. Being exposed to things that you never have before stretches you as a person, whether you come to see them as interesting and good or not.

The balance is regularly strained. Too much novelty can lead to overstimulation or feeling overwhelmed. My brain hurts. Slow down. That’s too much, too far, too different. At the same time, too much familiarity can result in boredom, feeling stuck, or narrow-mindedness.

When we think about the music people listen to, most of us don’t want a bunch of things we’ve never heard. We play songs we know and have an emotional connection to. Songs that you can sing along with, dance with, cry with–with a new single or album thrown in from time to time.

A similar thing is true of movies. There seem to be more sequels and remakes all the time–revisiting and remixing familiar story worlds. They take audiences back to something they already have a connection with while adding characters, places, and themes that expand that world a bit. Sequels are all about finding the perfect balance of familiar and new. Some are much more successful than others.

The tension of familiar and new is at the heart of politics. For some people, new policies, new ways of talking about the common good, and new coverages and rights are rejected as radically other—even if they would directly improve their own lives. They make a case to keep things exactly as they are–or even to go back to some supposed golden age (which usually wasn’t super golden for everyone). The political status quo is a comfortable retreat in the face of a to-be-determined future.

The thing is, none of us are meant to stay the same. We’re not meant to live in the past and the comfort of how things have always been. We need a core of familiarity so that we have a sense of self and of home. But we also need to be challenged with new things. It’s what makes you more engaged, more interesting, and more interested.

Even now, much of what is familiar to you was once brand new. You’re more open-minded and growing as a person than you might realize. Have you always thought the way you do? Eat the things you eat? Spend time with the people you spend time with? Take care of yourself the way you do self-care?

Much of what seems new and novel today–and perhaps overwhelming–will tomorrow become familiar. And then you’ll be ready to be challenged and grow some more. New things and ideas and relationships–without breaking your brain or feeling lost and untethered.

What’s familiar and what’s new to you is always changing. Life pushes and pulls you forward. It doesn’t do you or the people around you any good to guard yourself with familiarity. Know what’s home and what makes you, you–and get out of your comfort zone once in a while.

La La Land and Possibility

My wife and I went to La La Land the other night, and man–what an artistic and emotional doozy. We love and watch musicals whenever we can. It’s such an interesting movie genre. Most films don’t have characters casually slide into song and dance. Musicals do.

But it’s not just that some singing and choreography break into the story once in a while. It’s that oftentimes when a musical’s characters do begin their song and dance, the line between imagination and reality is blurred. Things happen in many musical performances that are literally unreal. They go beyond the limits of space and time–like dancing in midair, or the characters being transported into a painting. Or, the performances portray things that we as the audience understand are only visions of certain characters because they haven’t actually happened. We’re peeking into someone’s imagination.

La La Land modernizes the musical form in very entertaining ways–like seeing a smartphone notification interrupt a dewy-eyed duet. But it also plays off of and twists your expectations of what a musical is–particularly how a musical ends. Some people think La La Land’s ending is brilliant, and some people hate it. I think it was super clever, though definitely heavy.

Without spoiling anything, what I loved about how the story played out–and the film as a whole–was how it used the characteristic blurring of imagination and reality of musicals to make a profound point about what it means to be human. Essentially, that we’re always moving between the world as it is and the world as it could be. Between reality and possibility.

We are so often driven and inspired by dreams of a brighter, more interesting, more successful life. To travel. To be an artist or an athlete. To find our soulmate. To find freedom. Only to be painfully reminded that there’s a draining day job to clock in for, bills past due, failed relationships, and a world around us ravaged by the darker forces of human nature. There is always messiness and tension. Our imagination, fantasies, dreams, and hopes–tangled with and torn down by harsh realities.

How do we make possibility–the world as it could be–become reality? What kinds of things can we change by our own choice, and what is out of our control? How do we process the very difficult human experience of things we cannot change but wish had gone differently?

Go see La La Land. Pay attention to what it’s saying about reality and possibility, and how it smartly exploits being a musical to do so. You don’t have to know or like Los Angeles. You don’t have to know or like jazz or acting. La La Land has very interesting and true things to say about something we all confront. Interesting and true things to say about being human.

The Stories We Tell

For peoples, generally, their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of the present. –Thomas Berry

Human beings are a creature of stories. We spend endless hours streaming back-to-back-to-back episodes of serialized television. We hand over record box office dollars to see the latest installment in one of the many ongoing cinematic universes. We look at best of summer book lists to find out what novel we should take to the beach. We talk about our workplaces in terms of roles and performance–the language of actors and actresses. We run political campaigns on stories like retrieving a supposed golden age (make America great again), going it alone for a future of safety and self-sufficiency (Brexit), and preventing impending dystopia (Trump must be stopped).

Stories are the way that we make sense of the world, and they long have been. The Enûma Eliš, the Illiad and the Odyssey, the narratives of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Quran, evolutionary reductionism, neoliberalism, and countless other stories have shaped and given meaning to our existence.

Because we experience life as it unfolds through time, it makes sense that we often see things in terms of the narrative elements of beginning, middle, and end. We see ourselves as some kind of characters involved in an unfolding drama: whether it’s the macro level–tales about the birth of the universe and the place of humanity in it–or the micro–a local news segment on homelessness. We make sense of how all of the pieces of life fit together by organizing them into a plot with characters, direction, intentions, and resolution.

Stories are powerful and relatable because they answer some of the most profound questions we have. Why are things the way they are? How did we get to now? Where are we going? Why are we here? Stories give answers to our aspirations for prosperity and success, security and comfort, purpose and intelligibility. (These categories come from the very excellent book The Great Turning, which I’ve previously referenced here).

Some of the stories we tell are quite good. These stories are successful because they answer questions about prosperity, security, and purpose in ways that correspond closely to reality (as best as we can tell) and make us feel more alive. Think of your favorite movies. What makes them your favorite? I bet if you think about it a bit, they tell a story that answers one or more of these questions in a realistic, humane, and compelling way.

Think of your own worldview. What makes sense about the story you tell yourself about why the world is the way it is and why you’re here? It’s likely because it incorporates everything you’ve experienced, everything you’ve seen, everything you believe about human nature, and everything you hope for in a way that feels real, deep, and full of potential and purpose.

Other stories are unconvincing or wrong. The world is the way it is because of that group of people, and we should do away with them. A free market is the only way to prosperity for all. The universe was created in six literal days by a bearded grandfather in the clouds. Men are superior to women. Whites are superior to other races.

Many of these bad stories fail to perceive the interconnectedness and value of all things. They tell their story by excluding or belittling a whole chunk of reality. These stories cannot properly narrate why things are the way they are and where they’re going, because they have an incomplete or warped view of reality as we know it.

Think of some of the worst movies you’ve seen. What makes them so terrible? Is the acting bad? That touches on an inability to represent the reality of how emotionally and socially complex human beings actually are. The very best actors usually have extremely high empathy–they’re able to emote on screen in ways that feel as genuine as real life–and, in turn, we as the audience resonate with their performance. Is the plot boring, corny, or absurd? It’s likely because it fails to tell in an interesting and satisfying way why things are the way they are, how they got there, where they’re going, and the meaning of it all.

Whether it’s the stories we’re watching on TVs, devices, and movie theater screens, or our own real-world stories about our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and current events, stories are everywhere. It’s up to us to winnow out the good from the bad, and elevate the stories that speak to the reality of the world we find ourselves in and how we can best find prosperity, security, and meaning in it.