Life is beautiful

I tried watching ‘Breaking Bad,’ twice. I feel uneasy about missing out on a cultural phenomenon, you know? I didn’t want to watch it when it was released because it seemed too unrealistically dark, and I’ve already spent a lot of my life being unrealistically dark. But since they were showing it on AMC–and I expected they probably had toned down some of the violence–I gave it a shot, especially since there was nothing else on.

I have a bit of a moral philosophy when it comes to works of art. My view is, in order to serve the world, works of art need to lift you up (or at least leave you higher than where they found you). That doesn’t mean worthwhile art cannot involve tragedy — one of the most uplifting movies of all time in my opinion is “Life is Beautiful,” the Italian film, and in that film (spoiler ahead) the lovable main character is executed. “Braveheart” is another uplifting movie that involves its share of violence and death and tragedy.  But, if a work of art’s main purpose is to disturb you by showing you the ugly underbelly of humanity in granular detail, it doesn’t seem to serve anyone, except those making the art (because people are drawn to it the way they’re drawn to a horrific car wreck).

But maybe it’s better to say that I know that that type of art doesn’t serve me in particular.  I could see how these dark, twisted shows might purge something out for others that they cannot express or otherwise dispose of in any other way. I’ll admit I don’t really buy that, but in an attempt to be objective about it, I’ll at least acknowledge that that may be the case. And yes, at a base level, they’re entertaining, and maybe that’s my problem. I get emotionally invested in all works of art; they are never just entertainment to me. They convey a message about people, and the world, and I take it to heart (and honestly, consciously or subconsciously, I think most people do).

Anyway, my first attempt at watching ‘Breaking Bad,’ there was a woman dead in her bed, seemingly from an overdose, and a man crumpled in the corner in distress. Some guy comes in and instructs the distressed man on how to cover up the woman’s death, in this very calloused way. None of it made me feel good, or more enlightened. But, I was engaged, and it was memorable. So, I’ll give it that. I kept watching a while longer, but found the rest of the episode sort of boring and devoid of meaning (it did not make the opening scene seem worthwhile).

The same is true of my second attempt. Walter White (that’s his name, right?) is standing in a hospital with a group of people staring into a patient’s room through the glass. The patient is a man, Mexican-looking (the way the media portrays Mexicans, which is pretty much always stereotypically), who has had both his legs amputated. His legs are bandaged up, he’s hooked up to many wires, and he appears to be passed out. Walter White and the group watch him intently, commenting on how much they despise him, and then suddenly he wakes up — and looks straight at Walter White, with this incredibly venomous anger. The group then watches in shock as the man pulls all the wires out of himself, then lunges at the glass, crawling toward Walter White as his legs bleed out.

I changed the channel.

Compelling? Yes. It was an unusually barbaric scene, and it did grab me, it was hard to look away. But it wasn’t compelling in a good way.

I mean look, maybe all of these horrific scenes add up to a meaningful whole, but, I think I can do without having them in my life. It’s kind of like “The Revenant.” I don’t deny it was well-done, and that Leo was great as always, but I could’ve happily gone my whole life without seeing it.

So I haven’t seen “The Sopranos” or “Game of Thrones,” etc. And when I see snippets, or hear plot summaries, I cringe. I’m confused by why the general public regards these shows as phenomenal, and I don’t feel like watching them to find out. I imagine it’s because of rich character development, and plot twists, and the superb acting and directing, and just the shear shock value of many scenes. But, in terms of character development, what kind of character development are we talking about here? Don’t these shows consistently suggest that the world is a dark place, that people are relentlessly self-interested and vulnerable to corruption, and that we almost always give into our character flaws and our darker urges and desires? Is that really fascinating, and compelling, or does it simply affirm the viewing public’s ultra pessimistic worldview, and that’s what they find so appealing?

I kind of got on a tangent though — what I intended to write about was how I need to protect my thoughts with more rigor. I still wake up and read the news, even knowing how distortedly negative it is. It’s one thing if you think putting this stuff in your head is harmless, but I don’t. I think the things you focus on color everything else, and under the law of attraction, prevent good things from coming your way. In other words, I don’t think it’s a small issue at all — I think it’s a life-changing issue.

Like, I put on a string of silly Disney shows for the boys the other day. Yes, the boys are too young to understand them, but those shows use bright colors, vibrant sounds, etc., that catch their attention. I noticed that all of those shows created and entirely different worldview than most of the adult shows on TV. People are trustworthy. Friends are always there for you. Problems can be talked through, and solved. Dreams are possible. Failure is okay, because you bounce back and everyone is there to help you up. Is this worldview unrealistically positive? Probably. I imagine the “truth” is likely somewhere in the middle.

But then, as I say that, I immediately thought of “Life is Beautiful,” and of the trainings. Both instruct that the “truth” is a flexible thing. Two people can see the same facts in an entirely different way–again, what matters is which facts you focus on, and how you color them. In “Life is Beautiful,” the main character does the impossible: he turns the horror of the holocaust into a “game” in order to shield his young son from what’s happening. In so doing, for a while, he sweeps not only his son into his fiction, but himself and other prisoners as well. Even if for only a few moments, they find some escape from the horror. As for his son, he emerges from the ordeal completely unscarred. It’s true his father’s efforts did not make the holocaust go away – it still happened, and for the father, who all the while was desperately trying to find a way out, it was very real indeed. But the father nonetheless turned the holocaust into something else, for both himself and his son. Instead of being the horrific event that killed him, it is the greatest gift he ever could’ve given his son.

The trainings teach us that we can choose the lens through which we see the world. If your lens isn’t working — and you can easily tell, because it probably means you’re upset and miserable and think everything is shit — you can just change it. And it’s a moment-to-moment choice, it’s not as if I can declare to put on rosy glasses now and it will be that way for all time. It’s also not about denying the ugly parts of life — it’s just about not focusing on them. Not holding them up as evidence of what the world is like, or of who people are.

When I think about what I want to teach my children, one main thing is to not live in fear. Not because the world is not dangerous, but because it’s an unpleasant, and unnecessary, way to live. I want them to understand that the facts will be the same either way; the only difference is how you receive them.

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