Archive for June, 2011

23
Jun
11

The Content of Your Character

Nostalgia is a funny thing.  For example, the other day I was feeling nostalgic and came to this very site to reminisce about the days when I used to write on a more regular basis, and it inspired me to make an attempt at picking it back up again (also, I’ve got a heckuva lot of free time these days).  So after a year and a half, I return.  For those that knew nothing of this blog, welcome.  Poke around if you’d like.  For those that have been anxiously waiting, I’d encourage you to find a hobby (though I appreciate your allegiance).

Here’s what I want to talk about: I want to expand upon this post, which I wrote almost three years ago, and maybe allow that expanding to take us in an entirely new direction.  The post in question, if you don’t care to click the link and read it, was specifically about the football player Plaxico Burress, who at the time the post was written was about to go to prison for carrying an illegal weapon.  In the post, I posed the question of why anyone cared.  Or, more broadly, why our culture seems to value celebrities and pay so much attention to them when we possess no personal connection to them (more detail, obviously, in the original post).  In other words, why does anyone who works for TMZ have a job?  I gave a couple of possible answers in the original post, but the conclusion I came to was, essentially, I don’t know.  Now, three years later, when ironically Plaxico Burress is now being released from prison, I had a thought that I think has something to do with all this business.

I think that our society is obsessed with characters, and when I say that, I define the word “character” differently than I would define the word, let’s say, “person”.  Here is what I mean: Plaxico Burress is both a person and a character.  Plaxico Burress the person probably takes out the trash and maybe mows the lawn.  Plaxico Burress the character shoots himself in the leg and goes to prison.  What then is the difference between personhood and characterdom?  It has almost everything to do with perception.  When someone performs an action that most people would suggests aligns with how they are broadly perceived, they are acting as a character (or when we do something that is so monumentally unaligned with who we are that it changes that very perception).  Personhood is everything else.  This can be tricky, because it depends upon a perception that often we do not choose for ourselves.  If we as a society had somehow collectively decided to establish Plaxico Burress as a gentle family man, then to see him taking out the garbage would fall under characterdom, because taking out the trash is a thing a gentle family man would typically do.  But for whatever reason (or reasons, and discussion of those reasons is for another post entirely) society established Plaxico Burress as a “thug” of sorts, thus carrying a gun is something that his character would do.

The question then is not why do we care about Plaxico Burress the person, because we don’t (unless you are one of those types of people who possess an unearthly amount of empathy, in which case, bless you).  We rather care about Plaxico Burress the character, and that is more because we like characters in general than it is because we like the specific character of Plaxico Burress.  It is characters on the cover of US Weekly and People that sell magazines, not people.  Characters are the reason we go to movies, read books, and watch television shows, and the reason Johnny Depp keeps getting paid millions of dollars to dress like a pirate.  If we want to get even more broad, I’d suggest that we like characters specifically because we like stories, but stories in their most elemental form are simply characters encountering conflict.  So when the character Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg, what society saw was a character encountering a conflict, and we were engaged.  The problem is that while the character of Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg, the person of Plaxico Burress did too, and as outsiders we ignored that side of the issue.

The author Donald Miller (more on him later) suggests that every good story has beneath it a “story question,” something that keeps the audience engaged.  We care about fairy tales because the underlying story question “will the knight save the princess?” is engaging and carries us through (I feel like I touched on this a bit, though indirectly, in this post).  Three years ago, the main story question at hand for the character of Plaxico Burress was “Will Plaxico ever play football again?” and our desire to answer that question is the reason he was on the news.  But the questions that faced Plaxico the person were far more complex, more human, and largely ignored.  What message will this action send to the pee-wee and high school football players that idolize him?  How will Plaxico’s absence affect his family?  Will his marriage survive?  Will his being in prison during the formative years of his children’s lives have a negative effect on their future, or on their future as a family?  How will he repair the relationships in his life that this action will undoubtedly damage?  In general, these are questions society did not ask, and I would posit it is because these are questions that concern a person and come from a place of love, and that’s where Jonathan Franzen comes in.

Jonathan Franzen is an author who recently gave the commencement address at Kenyon College (an adapted essay version of that address is here, and it’s worth a read).  One thing Franzen touches on in his address is the idea of “liking,” but liking in the Facebook sense of the word, that is, more along the lines of making a consumerist choice (again, it would be more helpful to your understanding if you just read his words).  Franzen argues that “liking” has become a substitute for genuine loving, and I think that has something to do with what I’m getting at.  I think we “like” characters, but we can only love real, whole people.  Because we see Plaxico Burress (and any other celebrity for that matter) as characters, they will never be truly loved by society at large.  They may be liked, they may be admired, but they won’t be loved (certainly the people in their own personal lives love them, but not you or I).

Think for a moment about Stefani Germanotta.  Stefani Germanotta is the name of a person, but that person understands the theory I pose– that society values characters.  So Stefani removed almost every shred of personhood that she possessed and became the character Lady Gaga, and we ate it up.  As Lady Gaga, Stefani now lives almost entirely in her characterdom (can you imagine how odd it would be to see Lady Gaga, say, shopping for produce?) and she has experienced a tremendous amount of success because of it (also because the specific character that she has created is compelling and just so doggone weird).  The tragic part of that transformation is that by living entirely in characterdom, Stefani has removed any possibility that people who meet her as Lady Gaga will genuinely love her.  I would imagine at some point Lady Gaga drops the act, and there are likely people in her life that still just know her as Stefani, and perhaps those people love her.  But by diving so deeply into characterdom, I would suggest she is doing herself a major disservice.

What then does that mean for you or me?  I would argue that most people– be they famous or not, present some sort of balance between personhood and characterdom.  We all know someone for whom the phrase “(s)he’s a real character” may apply, and there are likely things that people who know us would suggest we are known for doing.  And being known for something is often a good feeling, often leading us to identify with those things we are known for.  This is clearly evident if you think back to your high school days.  Jock, nerd, skater, drama kid– these are all characters (that we were so quick to be characterized in high school is likely why high school was so glorious for some, and so miserable for others).  Aspects of our character are often what lead us to feeling a sense of belonging, which is why we as “normal” people (whatever that means) don’t abandon character entirely, even though it poses less value to us than it would to a celebrity, or someone trying to be one.  In general, the people that we know fall more within the category of person than character, and that is precisely because we know them.

It is a selfish and egotistical fact that I sometimes see myself as the starring character in a world that revolves largely around me, the lead in some sort of Truman Show-esque fantasy world.  I think the reason for this is because deep down, I have a strange desire to characterize myself.  If I am a character, then my life is not boring– I can take part in harrowing adventures and sweeping romances, and the moments when I’m nervous can be enhanced by a tremolo-filled string score.  Donald Miller (I told you we’d get back to him), in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, argues that we should live our lives this way, we should see ourselves as characters in a grand story.  He suggests that we should seek out opportunities to create story-worthy events in our lives, constantly asking ourselves if we are satisfied with the character we are creating ourselves to be.  Miller came to this conclusion after a Hollywood movie director decided to make a movie out of a previous memoir that Miller had written, but realized that the life Miller had described in that previous memoir wasn’t story-worthy enough.  Miller then set out to story-ize his life, to make his real life worthy of a film, and argues this philosophy of living through a sort of get-off-the-couch-get-out-there-and-live lens.  While I tend to agree with elements of it in that manner, I’m wary of it as a holistic life philosophy.

The problem I see is the potential for us all to end up becoming miniature Lady Gagas, which makes for a thrilling and entertaining world, but also a world that is largely self-focused and totally devoid of Stefani Germanottas, which I see as a tragedy.  While it is nice to be liked as a character, it’s nothing compared to being loved as a person.  When we characterize ourselves, we risk the potential for loss of vulnerability.  Of love, Franzen suggests “[it] is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.”  The problem with characters is that they aren’t real.  They are a photograph, a limited view of the whole.  We like them this way.  With characters, we can cut out the boring parts, the unimportant parts, the little messy contradictions that exist in our everyday lives.  But with real, breathing people, all these things exist.  Living in a world of characters is easy, but to live in relation with people, we have to accept, perhaps even love, all the boring parts, the unimportant parts, and the messy contradictions.  Without getting too sappy, I’d suggest that’s what love is, and I’d bet Jonathan Franzen would agree with me.  It’s a challenging proposition, no doubt.  To quote him again, he says that it is “the prospect of pain . . . [that] makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking.”  I think you could substitute the word “character” for “liking” and the quote would maintain its validity.  When we stop being characters and start being people, we run the risk of getting hurt.  Sure, I could live life as a character in some grand story, who swings from tree to tree and rescues princesses, but the problem is that I never open up my true person to what’s out there.  When I get hurt as a character, I can write it off as something that happened to “that guy”, and keep my self protected from that part of life.  So while I’m not suggesting that Miller’s book is an anti-vulnerability tome of any kind, I am suggesting that it should be viewed more as a simple call for action than a call for the restructuring of how one sees themselves.  In the end, both Franzen’s and Miller’s messages share a similar simplified message, that being to get out there and live.  But it is the manner in which we live that I believe makes the difference.  And perhaps the solution then is a compromise of sorts– to view one’s life as a grand story, but to exist and navigate through that story as a whole, unedited, living, loving person.  While it may not look so good on a movie screen, I’d suggest that life isn’t meant for adaptation, it’s meant for living.