In How to See, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
Many philosophers, scientists, and spiritual teachers search for an absolute truth because they don’t trust their own perceptions. They have the impression that although they are awake they are living in a dream.
Add fictional protagonists to this list of seekers. The search for some truth or its sudden revelation sets the course for a hero’s journey.
The way a hero is changed by the journey is not just about them learning new skills or accomplishing goals, but learning to see their world differently.
And this journey can be frightening and destructive for them:
The search for reality is the most dangerous of all undertakings, for it will destroy the world in which you live.— Nisargadatta Maharaj
We live this punishing shock to the system vicariously through these stories.
Sometimes the world comes crashing down
Take Star Wars as an example. You’re a farmboy on a backwater planet who has just learned that
- there’s a mystical power called the force,
- your father wielded it as a Jedi, and
- your home and family have been incinerated by an evil Empire.
There’s no home to go back to, only a larger world and a new reality to go deeper into.
Or The Matrix: You’re an office worker for a computer company, moonlighting as a hacker. After receiving some mysterious messages and being chased by menacing government agents, you’re given the opportunity to peer under the surface of life as you know it.
Next thing you know, you wake up in a tank of goo and find out your life before was a computer simulation plugged directly into your brain. You may be able to visit that simulation and learn kung fu, but you can never erase the knowledge that your real body is lying in a cyberpunk dentist chair miles beneath the Earth’s surface.
Sometimes the rules of the world break, forcing protagonists to look for a way out of a collapsed reality.
In The Truman Show, the title character discovers his entire environment was constructed to make a TV show out of his life without his knowledge. This realization comes in part from the world around him literally breaking: a stage light falls from what’s supposed to be the sky.
In Groundhog Day, a TV weatherman runs up against a world where time stops working the way he expects, and tomorrow never comes. While looking for a way to force the calendar to move ahead, he needs to see the people around him in a different, kinder light.
Or consider something even closer to our understanding of the rules of the real world, and the arena for the conflict is much smaller: In The Mood for Love.
You rent a room in an apartment and meet one of your new neighbors, only to discover that your spouse and their spouse are having an affair together. Everything you knew about your marriage is destroyed, and this person shares your pain.
So you start spending more time with this other person experiencing the same crushing loss. You play-act what you imagine happened between your unfaithful spouses: What would she say? How would he approach her? What would they eat when out for dinner?
You explore the boundaries of this new reality, where marital fidelity is fuzzy, and face up to the possibility that despite what you believe about yourselves, you may be capable of the same choices they were.
In all these stories, heroes are forced to confront the truth of the world they live in. They can’t backtrack. They must push through this new reality.
Sometimes the journey reveals how broken the world is
Experience the journey of Judy Hopps in Zootopia.
You grow up thinking the best way to make the world a better place is by becoming a police officer, and that Zootopia is a place where everyone has equal opportunities. But by digging deeper into a case about missing mammals, you see the cracks in the facade.
Lying there, under the veneer of that perfect world of predator and prey cohabitation, was generations of mistrust and fear, waiting to boil over.
Only revealing that tension, and learning the true nature of the world you want to help, can you find a path toward creating a new sense of balance and justice.
Or consider seeing Daniel’s moment of realization in The Karate Kid through his eyes, as Mr. Miyagi shows him that the specific motions of all the chores he’s been assigned are the basics of several martial arts blocks.
You assume that Mr. Miyagi is getting free labor out of you and is never going to teach you karate. All you know of martial arts is what you’ve seen in movies, or what the bullies from the Cobra Kai dojo dish out. You assume that karate is about violence.
But here’s someone showing you that you a different truth: that karate is about discipline, control, and awareness. A way to train your mind as much as your body. It is as much about fighting as it is about painting a fence or waxing a car. This knowledge changes the way you look at your teacher, your self, and the battalion of blonde bullies you need to face in the All-Valley Karate Tournament.
Or you’re T’Challa in Black Panther.
Your whole life you’ve known you were in line to be the next king of Wakanda, and you’ve taken your father’s vision of what that means to heart.
But as you battle against Eric Killmonger and his claim to the throne, you see the mistakes of the past. You see the crimes of your father, and the folly of the kings who came before you.
While the vision of Wakanda and the world that Killmonger holds isn’t something you adopt completely, his conviction makes an impression, even in defeat: You must change, and so must Wakanda and its role in the world. There is a path between your father’s reluctance to engage with other nations and Killmonger’s desire to dominate the globe. You will now try to walk that path.
The status quo is just expected; never perfect
However the story starts, the world behaves as the people in it expect. The rules may not be fair, but they’re well-established norms. It’s only when our hero sees the truth that the facade is exposed.
And a good story can remind us to look a little harder at our own world, to see if what we’re experiencing is true, or just what we expect.