Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Does Media Help Us Appreciate Life In Its Fullest?

By John Sanidopoulos

Modern media, whether it is literature, film or any other, often is dark, depressing and full of angst. It identifies with the modern soul, and helps those with similar emotions and thoughts feel as if they aren't alone in their lonely and confused existence. When coupled with a moral foundation or ending, it can be quite powerful in expressing existential truths and give some meaning where meaninglessness seems to reign. And if we can't identify with tragedy, then maybe we can at least learn something from the tragedy of another.

What most modern storytellers fail to grasp however is how to elevate their audience to experience the higher emotions and invite a more virtuous and meaningful life. Who would not welcome a feeling of hope, good cheer and gratitude, especially if they are living a lonely and confused existence. Is it not better to elevate such a soul rather than merely identify with it? To free it rather than philosophize on its enslavement?

Stories help to create ethics, and it is not a coincidence that the modern Greek word for actor is ηθοποιός (ithopoios), which is literally translated as "one who creates ethics". Is it any wonder why someone like Charles Dickens is not only considered by many as the greatest storyteller of all time, but he is also considered the first and greatest celebrity of the 19th century? He not only identified with the sufferers of his society, but he elevated those stuck in the gloom of daily existence to feel good about goodness and inspired virtue in the process. One only need to read A Christmas Carol to see how effective he was in doing this. He, as well as the few others like him, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, grasped something other writers would like to have grasped. But too often, as they come within reach, it eludes them.

We all know deep down inside that life is important, yet how much do we appreciate it and how much do we cultivate this appreciation within us by enhancing it? What inspiration drives us to appreciate life in all its fullness?

One story that answers these questions quite well is the classic play Our Town by American playwright Thornton Wilder. It is a character story about an average town's citizens in the early twentieth century as depicted through their everyday lives (particularly George Gibbs, a doctor's son, and Emily Webb, the daughter of the town's newspaper editor and George's future wife).

Emily eventually dies in the story while giving birth. As her coffin is brought to the cemetery and buried, she emerges from among the mourners as a spirit. She joins her dead relatives and fellow townsfolk in the graveyard. The dead tell her that they must wait and forget the life that came before, but Emily refuses. Soon Emily's ghost learns it is possible to re-live parts of her past. Despite the warnings of Simon, Mrs. Soames, and her mother-in-law Mrs. Gibbs, Emily decides to return to Earth to re-live just one day of her life, her 12th birthday, and is escorted by the Stage Manager, who is the narrator of the play. By this experience she learns why she was warned against entering into such an experience, and the distress she feels stems from the fact that she never stopped during her short life to appreciate life in its fullest. Her last full day of life slips by so fast that she doesn't have time to fully savor it.

The scene of the play from the last paragraph comes in Act 3. I encourage everyone to see Emily Webb's cemetery monologue dramatically played out in the first video (see here) and the second video (see here). The key point of the play comes at the 1:39 mark of the second video where Emily asks: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it, every, every minute?" The answer she receives from her escort speaks an eternal truth that echoes what we should all aspire to in order to truly live and appreciate life, as much as possible, to its fullest.

(To get the answer, watch the two linked videos, especially the 1:40 mark in the second video.)