Beginning At The End
“…better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy. And in the final tolling it often turns out that the facts are more comforting than the fantasy.”
― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Old Stories Are Like Old Friends
I recently rewatched one of my favorite shows — Bojack Horseman.
Similar to rereading a good book, for me it is like reconnecting with old friends. And even though there’s nothing new in these old shows or books, I connect with them differently. I catch things I didn’t notice before, or relate to story arcs and characters in new ways simply by virtue of having had new life experiences.
I think most people do what I do and relate primarily to the main characters of a story. Really, that’s what the authors and creators intend in creating the story in the first place. And I can accept worse fates for the side characters. Their stories can end badly. They can die. But in almost any series — the main character is protected in a bit of a bubble, even if for no other reason than the story could not continue if the main character died.
For every Romeo and Juliet there are thousands of other stories in which the main characters end up happily ever after. Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty. Beauty and the Beast (Yes, my daughters have Disney+). Or if the main characters do not live happily ever after, they at least find some sort of redemption in the end (i.e. Darth Vader).
Our main characters sustain damage. They hurt others. They are hurt themselves. But there’s something redemptive about them in the end. Some reason to justify us watching the show or reading the book. They amounted to something.
“My characters shall have — after a little bit of trouble — all that they desire,”
-Jane Austen, Becoming Jane
We relate to the protagonists in any story for a lot of reasons, but maybe subconsciously because of something so simple we overlook it. We relate to protagonists because they are main characters. And in our personal story, we are the main character.
There’s an apocryphal story of Abraham Wald — a mathematician during World War II. The story goes that the US military was desperately analyzing where they could reinforce their aircraft to keep them from being shot down. They provided Abraham with all the data of the planes that had returned with significant damage, and expected he would be able to look at it and tell them where statistically would be the best places to increase the plane’s armor. They assumed it would be in some of the areas that suffered the most damage. See the image below.
Abraham looked at the data and recommended strengthening the parts on the plane that had not received any damage. This surprised the military. Why didn’t he want to reinforce areas that were frequently getting damaged?
Wald explained: all the data they provided was only from planes that had returned. The planes that never made it back must have been shot in the places where the other planes were damaged least, no matter in how bad of shape they were in when they landed.
This is called survival bias: all the data informing a decision includes only survivors.
And I think something similar happens with our stories.
The Side Characters
Returning to Bojack, this time a particular side character stood out: Beatrice Horseman, Bojack’s mom. She was a neglectful mother, a bitter spouse, and a deeply unhappy soul. Her story is sad — but worse, it makes sense. Her life is ruined in so many different ways, and in the moments when she could redeem herself, it’s actually logical — even relatable — why she refuses. There is very little good in her, because there was very little good in her world. It was all rotten. And so, she rotted with it.
In the last couple episodes with her, I kept searching for some shred of hope. Some moment she turns things around or something goes right for her.
But it doesn’t come, and as Bojack leaves her in a dilapidated nursing home, he waves his arms around at the bare, dirty room with a window that looks out onto a dumpster in a brick alley: Are you happy? This is what your life amounted to!
There is a soft moment after that, but not redemption. Nothing that can be salvaged to validate that it was good she had been alive.
And my old friend — this show — asked me a question:
“Do you believe your own story will end well?”
And it shook me.
What if we have a survival bias from only paying attention to main characters? What if side characters are the planes that never make it back?
Beginning At The End
How many planes never make it back? And why?
How many lives have bad endings? And why?
What if most lives end badly — or at least not well — how would I know? Do I even really know anyone that went in a way they would have been happy with — in a way that when they put their book down or turned their show off, they smiled?
Beatrice’s story stood out to me. In all reality, I am not a main character. Who is? And anything that I think I’ll eventually get around to or change within myself in a later season or future chapter — is not guaranteed, and may not even be likely. I was 35 going into the pandemic. I am 37 now. We all lost two years, and some lost them all.
I have to cherish the moments I have. I can’t wait for a shred of hope, expect some redemptive arc in the future, or have any notion of “someday” except one: someday that I don’t expect and don’t get to choose, the curtains will fall: Are you happy? This is what your life amounted to.
And so as I begin this new year, it’s with a perspective of beginning at the end. Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living, and like Abraham Wald, it’s time I pay attention to not only the planes that returned, but especially the ones that didn’t.
I have to be honest as I look at my life. What am I taking for granted? What do I think I have time for later? How have I already failed?
If this was the end and all I amounted to, would I be happy?
I have to address each of these questions and keep them front and center, and I have to be ready to pursue new questions as I discover them. The answers are not easy, and sometimes they’re so guarded that I have to get creative in how to hack my own mental firewall. I’ve tried different practices: I journal, I self-reflect each night, do Wim Hof breathing exercises, and I just started meditating. Every six months, I write my six-month-younger self a letter.
I often make resolutions to go farther and do more, but I think this year will be more introspective. Repairing, reinforcing, and making the above practices more consist — as well as making concrete mini goals on the realizations they prompt (sometimes gut-wrenching insight). I’ll try new things, accumulate more experiences, and push myself into the unknown and uncomfortable.
It would be devastating to end as a side character, but even more tragic to live like one. I am the main character in my story. I must pilot the plane.