Time Well-Wasted: Another Defense of Sports

Firstly, I apologize for missing the past couple of weeks. I don’t have any excuses this time, but I do apologize.

Now, rather than continuing the series with defense of something else shallow, I wanted to follow-up on my post about sports. After having a long conversation with a friend about them (a friend who does not share my opinion of their value), I thought I would make note of one other significant benefit that I believe sports have.

As with all of my posts, in order to make an argument I must first create the universe. So here we go.

Modern society has long been opposed to friendship. Friendships between women are poisoned by a sense of competition, because society has decreed that you must do your best to be the fairest of them all, because this is where your worth lies. Friendships between men and women are poisoned by the belief that there is no such thing as a truly platonic friendship, that any inter-gender relationship has underlying sexual tension. Friendships between men, however, are perhaps the most poisoned by society, because society has unequivocally stated that things like “emotion” and “vulnerability” are feminine things, and any relationship between men that involves these things is (at the very least) bordering on homosexual. Christians like to point to David and Jonathan as an example of a true, loving friendship, but now people insist that they were involved in a homosexual relationship.

So how can men create and maintain relationships? Of course, the best way is probably to acknowledge the difficulty together and choose to deny it any value or authority. But given the fact that even having that conversation is difficult today, it is helpful to have another point of connection.

For many men, this is sports. Any shared interest is helpful, but sports is a common and far-reaching interest for many men. Sitting and watching a game together isn’t the same as having a deep and meaningful conversation, but it does provide a topic of discussion and a way to spend time together. For people whose love language is quality time, watching sports together is a completely reasonable foundation for a friendship.

For myself, while most of my male friends are not interested in sports, I have found football to be extremely beneficial in my relationship with my father. I have a good relationship with him, and I’ve never had “father issues” or anything of the sort, but I am wired more like my mother and have always been closer to her. Neither my father or I are particularly good conversationalists, either, and so it’s often difficult for us to connect by sitting and talking to one another. But we can sit and watch a football game together and share in (relatively shallow) joy or disappointment together. It’s a weekly ritual on Sunday afternoons to sit and watch at least one football game together, and it provides us with an activity to do together and talk about.

I realize the irony of this, because for many men sports can become an idol and for many fathers sports can become a way to ignore their children—this was the primary argument that my friend made against sports. This is clearly a real problem, and anyone who engages in sports to this extent is obviously using them badly. But caring about anything too much will lead to this sort of problem, and there’s nothing special about sports to cause this problem.

For me, sports is a point of common interest that can form a foundation for a friendship, and a way for me to spend time with my dad. (For a narrative example of this, I highly recommend watching Silver Linings Playbook.) In addition to all of the points I made before about the narrative and human excellence, I think sports can be a great way to begin the narrative of an excellent human friendship. (I was trying to come up with a good concluding line. It didn’t work out so well. Apologies.)

We’ll return to our regularly-scheduled defense of shallow things next week!

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Time Well-Wasted: A Defense of Video Games

My apologies for missing last week’s post—I was busy wasting my time well buying presents and enjoying Christmas commercialism.

And among all that commercialism, I received a video game as a gift from my father with the most video-game-esque name of any video game I have ever owned: Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. This name, I imagine, invokes the same basic image as World of Warcraft—an image of a life-wasting game with no actual value and over-the-top fantasy violence.

I have no response to the criticism of over-the-top fantasy violence, because this is decidedly true in both games (and many others). However, it is, at least in Monster Hunter, very self-consciously ridiculous, as you can literally fight with bagpipes.

Beyond that, however, I must take issue with the ideas of life-wasting and valueless. Video games rotting the brain, consuming lives and causing violence are extremely common ideas being passed around in society these days.

To the first, that video games have no redeeming value and rot the brain, I use the same answer I normally use to such criticisms: stories are valuable and important. Video games are, the vast majority of the time, a method of storytelling. The depth and sophistication of these stories has evolved a lot over the past several decades, but even Super Mario Bros. is a classic story of a hero rescuing a damsel in distress. RPGs, in particular, have complex and sophisticated stories that deal with questions about the nature of humanity and good and evil (Final Fantasy VII famously deals with the essence of identity and loss, to give an example of a quality story). Video games, like any other stories, have the ability to flesh out and connect you to characters, to make you have real, genuine emotions about what’s happening to them. As to the criticism that they rot the brain, and are not as beneficial as reading books or watching movies, I submit that unlike books and movies, video games actually force you into the story, because you are actually affecting the story yourself. You yourself are controlling the main character, fighting his battles, often even determining what the main character says. You are a part of the story in a very literal sense, and are certainly much more connected with it than you are in any form of “passive” entertainment where you simply watch or read the story unfolding.

As far as consuming lives goes, it’s certainly true that this happens, but that is also true of just about anything else people enjoy. Someone who spends their entire life holed up in a basement reading Harry Potter is fine, but someone who spends their entire life holed up in a basement playing Final Fantasy has no life and needs to get out more. I would say that both are equally unhealthy, but video games have no special ability to addict their players and consume their lives. (Some people claim that video games are specifically designed to addict their players—to which I reply that all entertainment is specifically designed to make you want to finish it.)

As to the idea that video games cause violence, this is such an absurd idea that I almost didn’t address it because it doesn’t even merit a response. The fact that we blame the games, rather than 1) the parents who don’t care to learn the rating system and know what’s appropriate for their children, or 2) the circumstances surrounding these people in their lives, or 3) the mental disorders that many violent criminals have, is absolutely ridiculous. If the complaint is that games desensitize children to violence, then I contend that we should go on a campaign to outlaw the news. In my experience, the only people who criticize video games for causing violence or other aberrant behavior are people who have never played a video game, and often are parents of violent children who never bothered to consider that a game called Grand Theft Auto might not be appropriate for their ten-year-old.

In addition to all of this, it’s also been scientifically proven that video games improve hand-eye coordination, mental processing speed and problem-solving skills. You want your child to learn problem-solving but can’t get them to care about algebra? Give them The Legend of Zelda. Seriously. It’s fun and satisfying to solve those puzzles, and even if they fail to figure them out, they will also learn to problem-solve by looking up the solutions online.

Video games provide us with a way to literally enter in to a story, rather than simply view it unfolding. They provide us with a way to learn problem-solving that doesn’t feel like work. They provide us with an enjoyable way to spend our time—and frequently, despite what you hear, an outlet for violence and anger that does not involve actually hurting anyone. Video games are no worse for you than any other form of storytelling, and truth be told it’s not hard to make a case that they’re better than most.

Time Well-Wasted: A Defense of Sports

Since I’m writing this while watching a football game, I figured I’d start out this series with something a little bit more socially acceptable, but still considered a shallow pursuit by many: sports.

A few weeks ago, when discussing plans for friends to come up some weekend, I requested that they not come that particular weekend because I was working on Saturday and the Broncos were playing their biggest game of the season on Sunday (and I wanted to watch it). This response, while eliciting a laugh and an “okay” from the friends who wanted to visit me, got a scoff and an eye-roll from another friend who was nearby. People who don’t like sports—and much as I hate to stereotype, especially girls who don’t like sports—don’t understand why you would ever choose to watch sports rather than to do anything else, like hang out with friends.

To some extent, it’s hard to explain something like that to people who don’t already understand it. But all the same, I’m going to do my best and lay out a few reasons why I believe that sports are worth our time.

The first is that obviously sports are a great picture of human physical potential, and there is something about physical excellence that is worth admiring. Of course you could argue that performance-enhancing drugs can compromise this, but the majority of professional players either don’t take these drugs or are able to avoid being caught, so it’s fair to say that the conditioning and physical abilities of the players are worth admiring.

The second is that in addition to the physical excellence, many sports require a considerable amount of mental excellence. Those who love and defend baseball (not my favorite sport, I must admit) will stress the importance of strategy in the game. It is not as fast-paced or as exciting as a game like basketball, but it’s a game of wits. Football, too, while having a tremendous physical aspect as well, is at least half strategy. I like football because it is a combination of the speed, excitement and physical excellence of basketball and the strategy and wits of baseball.

Finally, one of my favorite things about sports is, unsurprisingly, the aspect of story in the games. With most stories, there is an element of predictability—you usually know good will eventually triumph over evil, the hero will survive the impossible situation, etc. You suspend your knowledge to enjoy it, but usually if you thought about it you would know what was going to happen. Even stories that buck these trends tend to become predictable eventually—Game of Thrones was hailed for being unpredictable at first, but now we have seen so many characters die that we can begin to identify when they’re about to. M. Night Shyamalan famously shocked audiences with The Sixth Sense, but after that people started looking for clues and finding the twist before the end of the movie.

With sports, however, no one is actually writing the story, and so it’s impossible to predict. You can’t tell when a big play is about to happen. You can’t tell when an underdog is going to upset a heavy favorite. Football fans like to say that anything can happen “any given Sunday,” because there are always a few games during a season when a poor team will unexpectedly topple a great team. Sports are completely unpredictable. There are people who make their living predicting sports games, but they are considered excellent prognosticators if they’re right two-thirds of the time.

There is arguably a negative aspect to sports because of the personalities involved, but even this is offset by the presence of excellent sportsmen and gracious winners and losers. Sports personalities provide us with both cautionary tales and examples to follow.

Sports are fun to watch, and worth our time, because they show us the best of humanity in terms of physical conditioning, excellence in strategy and wits and completely unpredictable stories. It’s refreshing to spend time experiencing a story where you genuinely don’t have any idea what will happen. It’s inspiring (especially to those of us who are beginning to make a concerted effort to become fit) to see the physical shape that we are capable of. And of course, above all, as with everything on this list, sports are worth devoting time to because, for many of us at least, they are fun.

Time Well-Wasted: Introduction

In our society, people will judge others (or even themselves) for doing things that they see as “shallow.” They won’t judge themselves sufficiently to make themselves stop doing these things, for the most part, but they judge themselves enough to feel guilty when they do them.

As a loud and proud geek, I spend much of my time engaged in these shallow pursuits—television, comic books, video games, etc. Even movies sometimes get a bad rap, although this is less common and more genre-driven. It’s okay to see artistic movies, but it isn’t okay to see comedies or action movies.

I love all of these things, and more that other people often judge. I don’t consider them to be a waste of my time, nor do I feel at all ashamed of my love for (or even obsession with) them. I intend to spend the next several weeks defending these things more specifically (spoiler alert: get ready to hear a lot of “STORIES ARE IMPORTANT, GUYS”). I won’t be including TV in this series, because I love TV so much that it deserves to get its own series at some point.

In this post, I just want to make a single overarching statement: everything in moderation. “Wasting time” is, in all honesty, kind of a weird concept to me. Of course if you spend too much of your time with one thing, that generally isn’t good, because in order to be quality, well-rounded people we need some variety in our lives. (Although it’s interesting that so many office jobs seem to be simply doing the same thing over and over for forty hours per week, but because we’re making money while doing them, that is not wasting time.) But to my mind, as long as your time is spent with variety, and with some various simple criteria—some of your time should be spent creatively, some should be spent socially, if you’re religious some should be spent spiritually, etc.—the main thing is that your time should be spent in a way that you enjoy. What is “productivity” if we aren’t producing joy? If we’re producing something else, then the question becomes . . . well, why should we bother producing that?

John Lennon said, “If you enjoyed wasting time, then that time was not wasted.” I submit that Lennon was correct. We should, of course, be primarily striving to be good people. But why should we be good people who are miserable? Why not make ourselves happy in the process of being good?

In “wasting time,” we can find new ways to experience beauty, truth, goodness, love. We can become better. We can also have fun. I don’t see why this is a bad thing.

Right in the Feels

We’re all emotional masochists.

This is probably not the most popular thing I could say, because of course there are people who are emotional masochists, in very unhealthy and unpleasant ways, and I don’t mean to make light of their very legitimate problems.

But we’re all emotional masochists.

Think about it. What feeling springs to mind immediately when I say the word “Sherlock?” How about “Game of Thrones?” “Breaking Bad?” “Downton Abbey?” Heck, even “Shakespeare?” If you’re a normal person—well, if you’re an emotionally normal geek who would actually care about all five of those things—you didn’t get warm fuzzies just now. There is something addictive about these dramas, about great classic tragedies, about anything well-done that portrays suffering.

But why do we get addicted? Why do we let ourselves? We spend so long becoming deeply invested in these characters, in these stories, in these worlds, only to inevitably have them come crashing down around our ears leaving us weeping with a giant hole inside that can only be filled with ice cream (or your comfort food of choice). And yet, knowing that this will most likely happen when we form a bond with a character—especially on television—we keep doing it anyway. Why?

Why do cliffhangers work? Because we like to be strung along. We don’t like to have everything handed to us nicely, all pretty and tied up with a bow, at the end of each season. No, we want to see our favorite characters in mortal peril, and wallow in torment for months on end before finding out what happens to them. Why do we do this to ourselves?

The way I’ve constructed this post, it looks as though I’m working towards an answer, but I really don’t have one. I think that there are a number of things that contribute to our willing soul-destruction, but I don’t have any one answer about what makes stories do this to us, what makes us react to characters as though they’re friends and get torn up inside when they’re hurting.

But I think that the fact that this happens at all says something about the nature of stories. When stories are done well, they resonate with us, I’m told. I don’t really know what this means, but supposedly that’s the mark of a good story—if it resonated with you.

I’d say that the mark of a good story is when it doesn’t resonate with you at all, but rather claws its way through your skin, bashes in your rib cage and climbs into your heart. Really great stories become a part of you. There’s plenty of implications there for a discussion of literary criticism, but that’s not the point I wanted to make here; I just wanted to say that I don’t understand people who don’t read fiction and tell you not to watch TV, because they are missing out on so much. They’re missing out on friends they could meet, on worlds they could explore, on all of that poetic stuff that I’ll normally say to defend such things. But it’s more than that. When you love a story, when you get really invested in a story, to the point where it can cause you actual, real pain—you expand. You get bigger. You get broader. You get deeper. Stories don’t exist to expand the world, or even our view of the world. They exist to expand us.

So I keep on going. I keep on becoming invested in new characters and new stories, knowing that horrible things will befall them before the end. There are times when I get invested in a new story when I feel that I should apologize to the characters, because the mere fact of me being there means that at some point, their life is going to become a living hell. But to see that living hell and to partake in it, that makes me human. That makes me more human. That makes me become more than I was five minutes ago.

So now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go hurt myself some more.

The Last Temptation of Filmmakers

Having talked about adaptation in general last week, I feel that Biblical adaptations deserve a post all their own (and my girlfriend also asked me to write about it). As a Christian myself, obviously I greatly value the Bible and see is as more than “just a book,” and so adapting it into movies like the upcoming Noah becomes a trickier prospect.

There are, as with most things, two group of people who adapt Biblical stories into films (or other mediums): Christians and non-Christians. With Christians, the tendency is to err on the side of neither changing nor embellishing, and we get movies like The Gospel According to Matthew, which is literally an audiobook with moving pictures. Of course, there are exceptions (I am the last Christian on Earth who hasn’t seen it, but I’ve heard The Passion of the Christ is awfully good), and generally speaking I think Christians trust other Christians to at least have good intentions of keeping the spirit of the source material at the center.

But what do we do with non-Christians who think that the Bible is a bunch of hooey, but a good storybook? (This is, I believe, the first time I have used the word “hooey” in a piece of writing intended for someone else to read. I am very excited about it.) It’s very easy to misinterpret a lot of Biblical stories, and it’s equally easy to deliberately inject themes into the stories that were not originally there. Noah, for instance, has been rumored to be environmentalist propaganda, with God destroying the Earth with the flood because humans are not treating it properly, rather than because they are violent and sexually immoral and blasphemous and so on. (For the record, some quick research failed to reveal to me Aronofsky’s religious beliefs—he was raised a cultural Jew, but that’s as much as I was able to find.)

Personally, my beliefs in terms of adapting the Bible are largely the same as my beliefs in terms of adapting anything else—stay true to the spirit of the story and the spirit of the characters, and then just make a good movie. I understand why people get touchy about adapting the Bible, but to my mind if the message is the same, getting the story out one way or another is a positive. And let’s be honest, a lot of Bible stories require a fair amount of embellishment if we actually want to make a good movie out of them.

The movie that most readily comes up when speaking of less-than-accurate adaptations of the Bible is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, a film which focuses on Christ’s human nature and desires, and the temptations that he went through. When this movie came out, the Christian community went berserk, calling it blasphemous and demanding it not be released. This reaction—while clearly the wrong one, I would think—is understandable when dealing with something as important as Christ himself. (Of course, it’s also worth noting that it’s actually based on a novel, which is itself based on the Gospels.) Personally, my issue with The Last Temptation of Christ is primarily that I just don’t think it’s a very good movie, but it does call into question the sinlessness of Christ and whether or not he had any desire to be the Messiah. As such, I would say that the movie suffers from the same problem as any bad adaptation: it misses the point of the original. I respect the project, as it desires to make Christ’s humanity more accessible and believable, but doing so at the expense of his divinity and perfection makes it unhelpful.

In the end, then, I have no problem with non-Christians adapting the Bible or Biblical stories as long as they respect the source material enough to seek the underlying message and themes before undertaking to make it into a movie. I do think that the Bible is different from other books, but I also think that anything respectful that gets the content out into the world is a positive, so non-Christians are welcome to experience the depth and quality of the stories in the Bible and adapt them if they wish. I would only ask of them the same thing I would ask of Christians: please make a good movie.

The Cinema vs. The Library

With Ender’s Game finally coming out of movie development hell, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug on the horizon, the annual discussion about film adaptations of books is resurfacing. People are already bemoaning the inaccuracies of Ender’s Game as they have bemoaned the inaccuracy of so many books-turned-movies in the past (although Ender’s Game at least makes a conscious and visible effort to remain true to the book).

Anyone who knows me knows that I have rather a lot of strange minority opinions. I’m here today to tell you about why you should stop complaining if your favorite book didn’t get a good movie made.

Essentially, my argument rests on two premises: 1) The medium of art is tremendously important, maybe as important as the content; 2) an original story and its adaptation are two separate and distinct pieces of art.

The former displays itself pretty clearly any time a well-written book is turned into a movie. One of the main benefits that a book has over any other form of narrative art is its ability to enter the head of its characters. Books often do this literally in first-person stories, but even when they are in third-person a book can still tell you what a character is thinking or feeling at any given moment. In a movie, it is the actor’s responsibility to convey this inner monologue through his facial expressions and body language, but it’s simply not possible to make this as specific as a written account. For example, both The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game suffer significantly from this—in The Hunger Games, the real meat of the book is Katniss’ inner monologue, as she struggles with new emotions and thoughts as she battles through incredible hardships. In Ender’s Game, one of the most significant parts of the book is the psychological and emotional trauma that Ender and the other recruits endure in Battle School and Command School; at any given point in the book, the main characters are ready to collapse from sheer exhaustion and many of them (despite being the best and the brightest Earth has to offer) are incapable of free thought because of the constant psychological bullying. In the movies, Katniss is a much flatter character than in the books (despite Jennifer Lawrence’s excellent portrayal) simply because we don’t hear her trying to work through everything, and Ender states his exhaustion a couple of times but we don’t feel his body and mind crumbling under the strain of what’s happening to him. (If you’re looking for example of movies that do a superb job of displaying inner monologues via facial expressions and cinematography, see the 2006 Russian film Ostrov and Days of Heaven. Or anything Tarkovsky directed.)

This, however, is rarely the complaint that readers raise against movies. The complaint normally involves them (at least inwardly) standing up and screaming “BUT THAT’S NOT HOW IT HAPPENED IN THE BOOK!!!” Plot and character changes are the fundamental problem most readers have with film adaptations. I believe that this problem arises because people expect for movies to essentially be audio-books with pictures—although of course that’s tremendously unsatisfying, as well. But they demand that the movie actually be the book, only with moving pictures instead of stationary words.

Aside from the fact that this is, from a technical standpoint, simply impossible, the fact is that when a movie attempts to do this it really doesn’t make a very good movie. The Hunger Games, for instance, was co-written by the author of the book, and the result is that the movie rigidly and uncompromisingly sticks to the plot of the book but saps all of the meaning and depth. If you have read the book, The Hunger Games is a decent movie because you can automatically fill in all of the gaps, but if I had seen the movie without having read the book I would’ve left the theater confused, disappointed and without any interest to see the second movie. (The Hunger Games also has a few other problems, such as the fact that no one in the movie ever actually looks hungry. But that’s another discussion.)

On the other hand, Mary Poppins barely even resembles the book, beyond the basic characters and plot structure (although even the plot itself is fairly different). The result of this is that the movie is one of the most beloved Disney classics, and pretty much everyone except P.L. Travers herself thinks the movie is better than the book. The movie took the premise, characters and themes of the book and developed them, fleshed them out and transposed them into a film-ready state—resulting in tremendously fun dream-like sequences of animation and special effects that the book could never have produced. For an example of a movie that improved on a book that was actually good, I present The Princess Bride, which takes the comedy and insights of the narrator and brilliantly weaves them into the dialogue of the movie, in the process making the characters more complex and fleshed-out and allowing for a more powerful emotional climax. The writers of these two movies understood that you cannot write a movie the same way that you write a book, and made no attempt to do so. The result was two pretty fantastic movies that purist fans of the books would hate. (And along these lines, Saving Mr. Banks looks absolutely phenomenal.)

Movies simply function differently than books do. You must communicate through dialogue and cinematography rather than through omniscient words. They are wonderful ways for books to come alive, but you cannot expect that this process will leave the result identical to the starting point. If you can transmute lead into gold, it’s unreasonable to expect that it will still protect you from radiation.

Personally, I believe that the soul of a story is frequently somewhat divorced from the actual events, and that changing some of the events may in fact allow that soul more room to grow (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien agreed with me, for what that’s worth). This happens in The Princess Bride, and I believe in Prince Caspian as well (although most people disagree with me on that one). If you are adapting a story, the important thing is to maintain the soul of the story, the souls of the characters, and not much else matters. Of course, if the changes you make to the story simply make a worse story, then you should not make them (Mazer Rackham is less brilliant in the Ender’s Game movie because it was a bit easier to create the special effects shot that way). However, if you can make the story better, bring out truths and themes that are only touched on in the book, then by all means, change away (Prince Caspian needed an actual villain and some character arcs for Peter and Caspian, and the movie provided them).

It is a disservice to both the movie and the book to expect a film adaptation to be exactly the same as a book. Let the book be the book, and the movie be the movie, and accept each for what it is. If you love the characters enough to want to see the movie, then enjoy the presence of the characters in a slightly different world. If you don’t, then enjoy the different world that creates a different setting for the story. Or don’t see the movie. But please, don’t go see the movie and then complain it isn’t exactly the same as the book—art doesn’t work that way.

Extraordinarily Ordinary

I don’t remember whom or when, but at some point in my life some wise, well-learned person pointed out to me (and possibly to others? It could’ve been a blog) that there are basically two kinds of fantasy stories. There are stories about ordinary people in an extraordinary world (think The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc.), and there are stories about extraordinary people in an ordinary world (it’s harder to come up with examples of this, but Pushing Daisies comes to mind). This wise, learned (read that with two syllables for the full effect) person claimed that the first sort of story was the superior, because in those stories we are able to relate to the main characters and share in their sense of wonder at the world around them. C.S. Lewis would agree.

(Okay, I’m making it a personal challenge to not use parentheses for the rest of this post.)

In defense of their position, Lewis and Learned Man would point to the fact that I came up with three examples of ordinary people off the top of my head, and had to think to come up with one example of an extraordinary person. The stories about ordinary people stick with you.

So! Naturally, now I’m going to talk about comic books.

Comic books, for the most part, would tend to fall into the latter category. Superman is about a fellow who is practically invincible, super strong, can fly, etc. who lives in a world that is relatively similar to the real world. The writers had to invent villains who were extraordinary for Superman to fight, because where’s the fun in seeing someone so godlike beat up on run-of-the-mill bank robbers?

One of the biggest reasons that I love superhero comics, however, is that at heart they aren’t about extraordinary people in an ordinary world. People who label comics as “stupid” tend to have never read them, and have therefore never experienced what is truly at the heart of all of my favorite comics: ordinary people in an ordinary world. Sure, these ordinary people have extraordinary powers, but what makes characters like Superman and Spider-man so great is that we CAN relate to them. Superman is a small-town boy trying to make it in the big city, who has a crush on the smart, powerful woman working at the next desk. Spider-man is a nerd who can never make any money or hold down a job because he’s so busy getting the ever-loving crap beaten out of him every night.

Ultimately, the struggle of the superhero is the same as the struggle of a normal man: how can I make the world a better place and protect the people who I love? They are gifted with a more concrete way to do these things than most of us, but at the end of the day Spider-man and Superman collapse exhausted into bed just like everyone else.

The point of superheroes isn’t to give us a transcendent picture of superhumans who will come to save us from our problems. The point of superheroes is to give us something we can aspire to—because really, ultimately, Clark Kent and Peter Parker are just as human as we are.

Ironically, the least human superhero I’ve come across in my travels is Batman, who everyone loves because “he’s just a regular guy.” My issue with that assessment is an argument for another time, but one of Batman’s defining traits is his unwillingness to form any meaningful attachments to people. This is an understandable result of seeing his parents get murdered in front of him, of course, but Batman’s whole schtick is that he wants to not be a human anymore. When he dons the cowl and cape, he ceases to be a man at all and becomes the embodiment of justice. Think of the differences in the catchphrases of the three superheroes I’ve talked about. Superman: “Truth, justice and the American way!” Spider-man: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Batman: “I am vengeance. I am the night.” The first two convey relationships, happy ideals; Batman’s produces a picture of a dark, shadowy figure waiting in alleyway—which is, of course, what he is most of the time.

For all of the comics I enjoy, however, the crime fighting is always secondary. It’s as though it’s the job of the man or woman who is just going about their life, trying to have a normal one because they have normal human desires and emotions.

Superheroes aren’t extraordinary people living in an ordinary world. They are ordinary people living in an ordinary world, striving to remain ordinary and have ordinary lives. And it is because of this, because of the standard that they set for ordinary humanity, that they rise above and are extraordinary. They are extraordinary because they are ordinary.

On Motivation

I love writing. I do. I hope that some day I’ll be able to make money doing it.

So why is it so hard to motivate myself to write?

Whether it’s this blog (you’ll notice I missed my normal post on Friday), a larger creative project I’m working on, a journal, whatever. Once I get started, I love it and I’m excited to keep going until I meet my goals or finish whatever I’m working on. But it takes so much energy and is such a struggle to get started.

Is it just a struggle against laziness? Is it a struggle against insecurity, thinking that what I’ll write won’t be good enough?

When I’m working (doing writing or something else) for other people, it’s a lot easier to motivate myself. Knowing that other people will be disappointed in me drives me to do my best, to be focused and energetic and careful. But why is it so much harder when I’m the one demanding the work and setting deadlines for myself? Are other peoples’ opinions so important to me?

Recently, after a conversation with my girlfriend, I’ve been trying hard to keep a consciousness of God’s presence in my head every moment of every day. It motivates me to guard myself against sinful thoughts, it motivates me to use my time well and try to avoid wasting it (by, say, looking at dumb funny pictures on the internet). This has helped me to work harder, to get moving and get writing when I’ve set that as a goal for myself for the day.

But even that, although obviously a higher version, is relying on someone else’s opinion of me to motivate myself. It’s obviously a better thing for me to define my worth based on God’s opinion of me than on anyone else’s, but why can’t I drive the motivation myself?

I don’t have the answer to this question, and I don’t have a particular direction I’m writing towards here. Is it better to motivate myself by myself, or by God’s opinion of me? Is it pride or arrogance to demand work from myself? Is it bringing glory to God to work solely because I feel he’ll be disappointed in me if I don’t, or is that living with karma?

I don’t have any answers. Ironic that my words would fail me in this instance.

No answers. I guess I’ll just keep writing and hope it works out for the best.

Review of Gravity

Three years ago, walking out of the midnight premiere of Inception, one of my friends said, “I’m calling it right now: Inception wins Best Picture.” He turned out to be wrong, of course, as The King’s Speech and Black Swan had yet to come out, but we spent the next hour and a half walking around discussing the movie and wondering what it meant to be human and to live in reality rather than a dream. Even when they don’t win awards for it, you can always tell when you walk out of a movie that was something special. It’s something they do to your soul that makes you question everything, love or hate the universe and immediately want to turn around and walk back into the theater to watch it again.

At least two, and probably three, of the movies that will be nominated for Best Picture next year have already come out (Rush, Captain Phillips and Gravity). I haven’t seen Rush or Captain Phillips, but I can tell you that walking out of Gravity that something in my soul was stronger than it was for Inception, for The King’s Speech, or for any movie that I’ve seen in years.

Gravity presents the two problems that every artistic sci-fi film does: what it means to be human and mechanical failure. But while movies like Solaris and 2001 plunge deep into the depths of human nature to ask what a human is, Gravity does it in a much subtler way. While 2001 claims that you know nothing and asks you to strip your assumptions down to nothing, Gravity says, “Come on, you already know what a human is. You are one. Now what are you going to do about it?”

The film’s brilliance is that it manages to cross the entire spectrum of humanity in only two characters. The cheerful, wisecracking, babbly Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) spends the movie trying to convince the stoic Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) that living is different from existing, that tragedy doesn’t have to bring you down and that joy and beauty are real and are more important than anything else. Both characters have experienced unspeakable tragedy, both characters will experience it again before the end of the film, but they react so differently to it that the movie manages to drudge up every emotion you’ve ever experienced and lays them bare in front of you, to ask which you’re proud of and which you’re ashamed of.

But then the movie takes those feelings of shame and tells you to forget them. Gravity isn’t about not having regrets, it doesn’t downplay tragedy, it’s not about something so simple as “moving on.” It’s about true perseverance, about sacrifice, about beauty and joy and truth and, above all, about life. The film is simultaneously a monument to human accomplishment and an indictment of it. It is simultaneously utterly non-religious and deeply spiritual.

I’m babbling in paradoxes. I’m reviewing a movie that is visually downright unbelievable (in a good way), that pushes the technical limits of what film can do to new heights, and I haven’t even mentioned the special effects yet. Sandra Bullock will win her second Best Actress award, but I haven’t talked about that. The dialogue is smart, funny, clever, appropriate and realistic, but I haven’t even thought about that since I started writing.

Every aspect of this movie is fabulous. But in the end, none of that matters, because it brings you face to face with your humanity and asks you to accept it in its entirety, good and bad, and to move forward, to live tomorrow better than you lived today. It is a profound exploration of the human soul, while never edging on pretension or preachiness. (Much as I love 2001, “pretentious” is one of the first words that comes to mind when describing it.)

For lack of a less ridiculous way to put it, Gravity does an incredible job of exploring the nature of humanity while staying down to earth. (I know. I’m sorry. I really am.) Unlike so many artistic films, Gravity is not devoid of humor, explosions or any of the other things that make films enjoyable to us on a surface level. It’s also the most suspenseful film I’ve ever seen, and my muscles were sore at the end of it because they’d been clenching non-stop for over an hour.

Some movies do everything right, but leave you not needing to see it again (The Artist is a prime example from the past few years). Some movies are deeply flawed, but move your soul in a profound way (The Social Network, or True Grit). Some movies are both flawless and profound. Gravity is one of those.

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