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The Film

Imagine you’re going to a multiplex to see a movie of your life. When you get there, you find eight films are playing—each one a cradle-to-grave biopic about you. You’re confused, so you ask the guy in the ticket booth whether these are eight parts of one story that should be seen consecutively, or alternate versions of a self-contained narrative.

This ticket guy, chunky and walrus-faced under a tie-dyed engineer’s cap, looks like Ignatius J. Reilly minus the fiery indignation.  He’s got a stack of books on the counter, Pauline Kael and Elvis Mitchell mixed in with Walker Percy, St. Augustine, Seneca and Sharon Salzberg. Eclectic dude, this one.

He explains that all eight films are about your life, but that doesn’t mean they’re versions of the same story. In fact, he says, the stories are mutually exclusive—that is, whichever film you choose to watch will rule out parts or even the entire plot of each of the other films. So you ask him for a recommendation. He smiles. “Well,” he says, “it depends on what you want from your life. You’re the subject and star of each story. I’ve seen each one, but since it’s not my life, I’m not sure which one to believe. Each of these films is brilliantly made. Whichever one you choose, you’ll find that every part of the film is convincing, very realistic, full of meaning and human drama.”

“So they’re all equally good, huh?”

“Well, it depends on what you mean by good,” the guy says, twisting one end of his big mustache. “I said they’re all convincing and meaningful, and that’s true. But since these films are about your life, not mine, you might want to be more careful about which one you choose, because you’ll probably find it persuasive, you’ll believe it, and your beliefs will shape your reality, so your life will end up corresponding to the film you choose to attend.”

This sounds bizarre, but the logic of his points starts to sink in—you’ve read about the power of suggestion, so it makes sense that the film you watch will shape your life. This holds true whether you’re viewing arm-in-arm romance or Armageddon upheaval.

You ask him to give you some idea of the differences between the films. The film playing in theater #8, he tells you, is very dark. In that story, everything seems to go south in your life. Your worst fears are not only confirmed but vividly amplified. As subject of that film, you believe all the hairiest things about yourself, and your virtues and confidence wither as your fears and vices swamp you. Even the most fortunate opportunities are forsaken. You succumb to cynicism and defeat. You end up lonely, alienated, and cynically hostile to everyone, even those you love—think Scrooge with an iPhone. The film’s shot in black and white, its texture rough. Its images comprise a harrowing stew—Diane Arbus spiked with Bergman, a dash of Bosch and a few eyefuls of Munch and Goya tossed in. The title of this film is “The Misanthrope.”

“Wow,” you say. “That film sounds terrible! I thought you said they were all full of meaning and human drama.”

“Well, that film is not unrealistic, and it’s not meaningless either. It’s very sad, and even though you become a very depressing, irascible character, the viewer still feels some sympathy for you. You start out with a good heart, but since you feed it only fear and negativity, at the end it’s just this starved, spiky thing. Any compassionate person will pity you as you make one bad decision after another. And it’s actually a great cautionary tale—we can learn from a film like this how NOT to live our lives.”

“Okay, what about the rest? What’s at the other end of the theater?”

The film playing in theater #1, he explains, is an inspiring tale of your life in which you meet each challenge with eagerness and faith that you will not only overcome adversity but profit from it. You spy winking chips of redemption even in the grimiest corners of human existence. When you do have to hike across nihilistic moonscapes or hump through the valley of the shadow of death, you give a leg up to the scorned, bedraggled pilgrims stranded there. You radiate strength and compassion for everyone you meet, and while you certainly experience struggle and conflict, your resilience, kindness and creativity grow, and you end up living a meaningful, happy life. You’re surrounded by family and friends you love. Whatever you choose to do, your core motive is helping others, and that fulfills you. This film is called ‘The Exemplar’.

“I thought you said that all the films are realistic. The first one you described sounds like a tragedy, but at least it was credible. The film in theater #1 sounds like some Pollyanna fairy tale—I’d have trouble believing it.”

“That’s only because you’re not accustomed to thinking that such a life is possible. But there are people who live lives like that, in which their greatest dreams come true, largely because they choose to nourish those dreams.”

“Okay, what about the other six movies?”

“They’re all mixtures of plot elements and themes that you see in the two opposite versions I just described. The film playing in theater #7 is only slightly less tragic and depressing than the film in theater #8—you show a little more optimism, strength and compassion, but not enough, so you end up living in squalid isolation, perennially pissed off and petrified. This film is called ‘The Loser’. The film playing in theater #2 shows you as a strong, confident, and kind person, and you enjoy wonderful success—you just don’t quite reach the heights of happiness and achievement that you do in ‘The Exemplar’, because your optimism isn’t as clear-eyed or consistent.

“So it’s like your life energy, your soul or breath or whatever you want to call it, is that bright light burning in the projector, and you can choose which strips of celluloid you stream in front of it, which images get projected onto that big IMAX screen of your life. The projection house, that’s your mind—fill it with whatever you want, and the results will splash out into events and circumstances, sprawling incandescent arcs of joy and meaning if you want, or smoking battlefields haunted by pain, futility and despair.”

“You’re saying I can avoid all trouble and pain in life? That sounds naïve.”

“Not exactly. Adversity is bound to come—there’s always trouble and pain heading our way in the long term and short term, and we never really want it. But we can always shape our response to these adverse events. And when they’re hitting you, keep in mind that painful though they may be, the fruit they bear in your life could be very positive.”

“So my past life is in each film too?”

“That’s the only part of each film that’s identical—you can’t change your past. But you CAN change the way you think about it, and that’s where the plot of the rest of each film gets forged…

“You can see your past as a series of crises that lock you into a life of regret and karmic boomerang—pain and tragedy echoing endlessly through your days until you die. OR…you can see all you’ve been through, whether painful or easy, as a boot camp of the spirit, prepping you for a life of increasing strength and expanding vision.

Now…which film would you like to see?”

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