Do you ever find yourself listening to a voice in your head that’s providing a running commentary on the moment?
What if that voice wasn’t just griping about stupid paperwork that’s wasting your time? What if it started to narrate things right before they happened? For example, you hear the voice go, “I wish people would just leave me alone.” And then your phone rings.
Or even creepier, the voice speaks in a third person omniscient voice, “And then Kelly heard the door knock three times,” and then you hear the door knock three times.
I don’t know about you, but I would need a change of pants.
Well, this is the premise behind a wonderful movie entitled, “Stranger than Fiction.” It in, Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an introvert I.R.S. agent who keeps hearing a voice describe what’s about to happen.
He naturally visits a psychologist (Professor Jules Hilbert played by Dustin Hoffman) who becomes convinced that the narrations are real. In other words, someone is writing Harold’s life. As they try to unravel the mystery, the professor declares,
“The last thing to determine conclusively is whether you’re in a comedy or a tragedy. To quote Italo Calvino, “The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” Tragedy, you die. Comedy, you get hitched.”
So as Harold goes about his day, he keeps a tally of the good things and the bad things that happen to him, figuring if one greatly outnumbers the other, he will get his answer about whether he’s living in a comedy or tragedy.
I think one of the reasons why this movie resonates with me so much is that I feel like we all have this idea that we are in a story. And that we are the protagonist. And that the story is going somewhere important.
Perhaps when you were younger you even thought that you were in a type of Truman movie where the whole universe was watching you, fascinated with what you were going to do next.
Hopefully you’ve grown out of that stage (I know of some who have not), but perhaps there still remains this idea that you are in a grand narrative with a part to play.
The question is, as Professor Hilbert pointed out: are you in a comedy or a tragedy?
Your answer probably depends on a similar system that Harold devised. If things are going really well for you—comedy. If life has been disappointing or challenging of late—tragedy.
So, how much control do you have over the story? Is there free will? Or is there a Sovereign Power directing the plot to some inevitable conclusion?
Ah, that’s the great Augustine/Pelagius (or Calvinist/Arminian) debate, is it not?
Well, that’s not where I’m going to go with this essay.
Instead, I want you to ponder the narrative that you have in your head right now, because I actually think it’s important.
Dr. Edith Eva Eger thinks so as well. In her book, The Choice, she recounts when at sixteen, she and her family were arrested by the Nazis and placed in an overcrowded cattle car to Auschwitz. The trip was dark, miserable, and scary. Most of the time was filled with silence. But as the train neared its destination, Edith’s mother spoke these words, “We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Just remember, no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”
This bit of wisdom wound up being pivotal for Edith’s survival. And it became a foundational idea in her practice later as she counseled other survivors of major traumas.
You see, you may not be able to exert a lot of control over what happens in your life. You certainly don’t have control over what happens in the world. But you do have control over whether the narration you develop to make sense of it all is a tragedy or a comedy.
Because no matter how good things might be going for you, it’s always possible to spin the narration in a way that convinces you that life sucks.
The converse is true as well—when things go bad, it’s possible to craft an inspirational interpretation, or a hopeful one, or even something comical. Dick Van Dyke falls over a piece of furniture in the living room and we laugh. So see, it’s possible.
Eger also writes, “…suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional.”
In other words, we all experience pain. It’s unrealistic to believe you can get through life without a boatload of it. Granted, some people have experienced far more of it than others.
But if Eger’s book demonstrates anything, it’s that no matter how much pain you have experienced in life, it doesn’t have to translate into a tragedy.
This is where paying attention to the narration in your head becomes important. Because if all it does is criticizes or finds flaws or leads you to always feel bad about life, then it’s time to change voice.
Recently I watched a Netflix special about the movie, “Back to the Future,” and one of the fascinating things I discovered was that the original actor slated to play Marty McFly was a guy named Eric Stoltz.
Stolz read the screenplay and became convinced that messing with the space-time continuum in such a way that it threatened one’s very existence would be highly traumatic. So, when he showed up on set, that’s how he played Marty—very angsty and moody, on the verge of going off the deep end.
Time and time again the director and the writer of the screenplay attempted to get Stolz to lighten up and make things funny because, well, the movie was supposed to be a comedy!
But Stolz ignored them, making each scene more depressing than the last. Eventually the director realized that despite the expense, Stolz had to be replaced with someone who “got it.”
Enter Michael J. Fox. His first scene took place at night in a mall parking lot. Marty walks up to Doc Brown where the mad scientist introduces the young teenager to his latest invention. Fox’s Marty runs his hands through his hair, messing it up, then he gesticulates wildly and says in an exasperated, squeaky voice, “Doc, are you telling me you built a time machine…” dramatic pause as he points to the smoking car with winged doors, “Out of a DeLorean?!”
Fox’s natural comedic timing nailed it so well that when the director yelled, “Cut!” the crew burst out in laughter and applause. And in that moment, the director knew he had made the right decision.
What I find fascinating about this story is how the exact same material was played in two different ways. Stolz read the script and could only see tragedy, despite the expressed intention of both the director and the screenwriter!
But Fox saw comedic gold.
So I ask again, are you living in a comedy or a tragedy? Is this year, this month, or even just this day leading to a sad ending or a happy one?
You get to choose the voice and the tone.
So toss away the tally sheet of good things vs. bad things.
Instead, no matter what happens, just keep playing “Earth Angel,” with every bit of strength you have until your parents kiss.
Great Scott! It just might save the future!