The Stories a Desperate People Tell

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One reason they call it popular culture is that its popular, really, really popular. The artifacts of our media-saturated and consumeristic society are everywhere. In our time, there is an unreality for everyone. No niche remains overlooked. No lifestyle, no matter how dangerous, no interest, no matter how depraved, goes unserved by the masters of storytelling.

In spite of the splintering of the mainstream, some works continue to gather a mass audience, and these often tell us more than a story. They tell us about ourselves, about the condition of our hearts, about our modern sickness and the possibility of healing.

Many of our most popular stories concern the secret question audiences hold in their hearts, whether they are conscious of the question or not. Many popular stories appeal is anchored in their dealing with the question of whether love and all its accompanying comforts remain possible in a world designed to suppress them.

A few examples.

I mentioned in an earlier post that our family had been watching our way through The Wonder Years . Well, we finished it last week and the conclusion makes clear that the question mentioned above is critical to it.

The same is true for other popular shows. Think “Parenthood”,a show about a family clinging to one another in spite of the panoply of modern pressures trying to drive them apart. Gilmore Girls is a show, not just a19-gilmore-girls-2-w529-h529 couple of girls, but about a whole town built around the hope that love is still possible.

Lately, we’ve been watching a sometimes painfully difficult BBC show called “Last Tango in Halifax”. The same question animates it. The only thing that changes between these shows is the setting. Love is always the theme.

Lest you think that this question of the possibility of love presents itself only in a particular genre, I’d suggest that this question, in an admittedly grittier and darker way, is central even to The Walking Dead. That show simply explores the question in a setting where all the contrivances of modernity have been stripped unceremoniously away. Is love, the show asks, possible outside the matrix of modern convenience.

The argument I want to make here is not really about television. The argument I really want to make is about love.

Nobody wants to come out and say it, but love has always been a scarce commodity in the world and the structure of modern society makes it even more rare. Social structures are built around values. Our society, for example, is built around maximizing individual choice, primarily in the arenas of sex and commerce.

Earlier societies were and ours could be, at least theoretically,  organized around different values. Imagine a society built around values that seek to maximize not individual liberty, but love. We could make changes that build support for families and increased possibilities of love into our social fabric. We could, for example, reform divorce laws to protect children and spouses who want to keep trying.

Outlining the way to a new society is beyond the scope of this post. Instead, I will simply point out that a society that structures itself around the individual will can only increase our alienation from one another.  People who live in such a society are destined to be lonely, to have trouble establishing and maintaining connections with others.

The only way out of the problem is to reject much of the surrounding culture. A lot of the pain modern people feel stems from living in a culture that forces upon us this dilemma: we must choose lasting connection or social conformity, must make ourselves either lonely or weird.

The desire for connection and for love is inborn and when it goes unmet, it doesn’t go dormant, it turns into a cancerous need, a throbbing tumor on our souls. Of course, the only treatment our society can provide is denial. “Just ignore that thing,” we’re told, “If we all ignore our cancers, we won’t have them anymore.” That denial of our innermost disease will lead us to health is a truism of our time.

So, what do people trapped in a world like this, a world of alienation and emptiness and denial, do? We tell one another stories of worlds that are not like this one or, at least, not so much like this one. We tell stories that, however their surfaces appear, all whisper to us in the subtext that another world is possible. We tell stories that affirm that indeed the ache we feel is real and that keep alive our hope that, in spite of all the forces arrayed against her, love may yet triumph.

It’s easy to say all this television watching is part of the problem, and that’s right. But for many, TV is no mere escapism. It is life support. People can recognize in narrative what they cannot realize in life. To condemn the need people have for such tales only adds to the burden.

A better way is to encourage, when we can, reflection on what it is in these stories that people love, to invite the binge-watching masses deeper into their hurt so that out of that painful exploration, change might be born. Awake people must engage in this subtle subterfuge: we must take seriously the power of narrative and enlist it not to present imaginary worlds only, but to point us all to a better future for the real one.

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