Existential Psychology

Life Is Not A Movie

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Most of us believe we’re the protagonists in this thing called life. We wade through the world, bumping up against some people, moving along with others, all the while considering each and every one of them to be secondary characters in a movie where we’ve got the lead role. They all return the favor of course, considering us to be the secondary characters in their own movies.

We could use the above as a jumping off point to talk about recognizing and overcoming narcissism but we’d rather continue on with the life as a movie analogy to make a point about embracing the present and cultivating gratitude. There’s a culturally instilled belief that life is or can be or should be a movie, what we might call life imitating art. And most of us believe we’ve got the lead role.

The leads in movies usually have it made, their problems are predictable and solvable, they’re blessed with a useful set of skills and a lot of good luck. The bad things that happen to them don’t come out of nowhere for no apparent reason. And there’s a logical set of steps that can be tracked to avoid the bad outcome, opportunities that are easy for us to spot as the moviegoers watching everything transpire from above.

One of the psychological results of all this, of having seen thousands of movies since childhood and unconsciously considering them to be the standard to which life can and must align, seems to us to be an amplification of the preexisting tendency to be narcissistic and optimistic. It’s a bunch of people believing they’re basically bulletproof, that their lives are predictable and controllable, that it’s possible to see all the bad things coming and to prevent them from happening. That time will stretch out indefinitely during a life changing event to allow for the unwanted outcome to be avoided.

But tell that to all the people whose lives have changed irrevocably in an instant due to circumstances completely outside of their control. We can’t predict the future and we can’t necessarily prevent the unwanted things from happening to us or the people we care about. The reason to cultivate this insight is not to increase anxiety but rather to embrace and feel gratitude for the present if things are currently going pretty well. You’re not the main protagonist in an action movie or a romantic comedy, you’re a person moving through a massively complex and highly unpredictable world. Appreciate the good times while you have them because there’s no way to tell what tomorrow might bring.