Published in Sep-Oct 2023
While I’m not crazy about watching cricket (and the season is upon us), I can’t help but notice the epileptic reactions that the game injects into its fans. We swerve from extreme joy to debilitating sorrow or regret if the game doesn’t go our way. And then we marinate in agonizing depression – avoiding all highlights and news coverage of the game – until the next match is scheduled. And then we get excited. And the cycle repeats itself.
Kurt Vonnegut, author of 14 novels – including Slaughterhouse-five, ranked among the Top 100 novels of the 20th century – had a theory about this that he delivered at a talk in New York explaining why people have such a need for drama in their life. He said, “People have been hearing fantastic stories since time began. The problem is, they think life is supposed to be like these stories.”
He drew an empty grid where he showed ‘Time’ moving from left to right; and ‘Happiness’ from bottom to top. He said, “Let’s look at a very common story arc. The story of Cinderella.” (See Figure 1).
As you’ve already surmised, Cinderella’s awful life reaches a climax at the ball, but then it’s midnight and she makes a run for it. It’s back to awful again. Then the prince finds here. And it’s happily ever after. “People love that story! This story arc has been written a thousand times in a thousand tales. And because of it, people think their lives are supposed to be like this.”
Vonnegut wiped the board and said, “Now let’s look at another popular story arc: the ‘Disaster.’” (See Figure 2).
He shows that on an ordinary day in an ordinary town, something terrible happens to a child. Everyone rushes to save her. Old grievances that surface seem trifling in light of this tragedy. Broken bonds are mended. Old enemies begrudgingly befriend each other for the benefit of everyone there to help. The child is saved. Hurray. Life goes back to what it was, except that the incident has brought the community together and everything feels noticeably better than before. “People love that story! This story arc has been written a thousand times in a thousand tales. And because of it, people think their lives are supposed to be like this…”
But the problem is, Vonnegut clarifies, “Life is really like this…” (See Figure 3).
He explains that for most people, most of the time, our lives drift along with humdrum occurrences. Some ups. Some downs. But generally, nothing that the history books would want to interview you for. Nothing terribly fantastic or fantastically terrible that’ll be talked about for the next one thousand years. He says, “But because we grew up surrounded by big dramatic story arcs in books and movies, we think our lives are supposed to be filled with huge ups and downs! So people pretend there is drama where there is none.”
Which explains why people invent fights. Or why we’re drawn to sports. Or how we model ourselves on heroes and heroines. Or why we’re always acting like everything that happens to us is such a big deal.
When it comes to personal care, trying not to turn our lives into a salvo might be the best salve we can apply.
Faraz Maqsood Hamidi is Chief Creative Officer & CEO, The D’Hamidi Partnership, a worldwide partner agency of WPI.