John Eldredge once wrote that there are two things that pierce the soul: beauty and affliction. Nothing else has that kind of power. We can spend our lives chasing something that we believe will give us significance or a sense of immortality, but ultimately these things will all come up short. At the end of the day, those are the things that matter.
Yesterday I both finished the movie “Birdman” and also the novel “Station Eleven”—both structurally and thematically similar to one another in the sense that each were about man’s futile search for significance and immortality. (Admittedly these were odd choices for Easter, a celebration that’s all about redemption.) But they both made me think, which in entertainment is rare. I’ll start with “Station Eleven”.
The book is described on the back as a “tapestry,” and that’s very much how it feels: I am impressed with the way the author moves through time and between character’s viewpoints seamlessly, and you just have to figure out where you are now as you go. Some chapters are ten or twenty pages and some are a paragraph. Some are interviews with characters and some are unfolding events. I will say I am thoroughly impressed with the *way* she tells the story. What she’s created required prodigious skill.
It’s an apocalyptic novel, which intrigued me because that’s also what I’m writing at the moment—but it’s not a book about survival so much as what happens after all the drama is over—i.e. the rebuilding and creating a new world. There’s a prophet who borrows his theology from a few out-of-context verses from the book of Revelation combined with comic books he memorized as a kid. There’s an actor who realizes that he’s spent his entire life seeking purpose in something that doesn’t actually matter. There’s the actor’s ex-wife who is a “nobody” and can never get used to the paparazzi, and when she and her husband divorce, she spends the rest of her life alone.
What I was left with thematically, though, was this idea that every character in the book, whether from before the apocalypse or after, has spent his entire life seeking something in terms of a career or a purpose that he believed would bring him happiness. Some of them achieved their goals and some didn’t—but still, none of them are actually happy. “Sleepwalkers,” they are called—people who figured out that their childhood dreams were impossible and eventually got on with the business of life… but because the “business of life” involved the death of their dreams, they are never fully alive again. And yet those who actually achieved their dreams are equally empty.
At the same time, by the very vignettes she chooses to tell, the author shows clearly that what really matters are people and relationships and love. But nobody figures this out in time. Almost everyone (except for a minor character) ends up bereaved, deranged, filled with regret, and/or isolated. Nobody ever says this in so many words, but at the end, when they are dying or have otherwise crossed the point of no return, what they think about are the people they love. They remember the little details about them. They appreciate beauty and simple pleasures. Those, it turns out, were the things that gave purpose to their lives all along. But it’s too late.
“Birdman” was the same—cinematically gorgeous (it won Best Picture this year for a reason), with unexpected dialogue that encapsulated relationships in a few sentences, moving in and out of the main character’s perspective such that the viewer is never quite sure whether certain sequences actually happened or not. But ultimately, the story is about an aging actor’s search for significance, and what it takes (rightly or wrongly) for him to achieve it in the eyes of the world. All his life, the main character chased fame—and once he achieved it, he found it empty. Instead, from that point forward he chased significance in the sense of being a “great artist,” thinking this would give him fame for a nobler reason. But only when he knew that he’d failed did he realize that what he’d given up in the process (his marriage and his daughter) were the things that really mattered.
(Until this point the movie is almost predictable—but there is a twist at the end that I won’t spoil. I’ll just say it’s worth watching.)
I felt a little hopeless (and puzzled) by the time I finished both of these stories, though. In a way it felt like they both claimed that the pursuit of significance through following your dreams is ultimately futile. Even those who achieve, if that is *all* they achieve, end up empty. (I’ve always wondered what life must be like for celebrities who thought they wanted fame, and then they get it. What percentage of them feel fulfilled… and how many feel even emptier than before, because there’s now nothing higher to shoot for?)
And yet, both stories in some sense implied that what really matters are the things that are available to all of us already. And that is a message worth sharing.