The stories we tell both reveal and shape our worldview. Often, the myths, legends, and fables we share cast a vision of how we would like the world to be, rather than how it actually is. Fairy tales, fantasies, adventure stories — all tend to portray a world in starker contrasts and greater simplicity. The good guys are wholly good. The bad guys are wholly evil. The right course is clear. Events fit a narrative structure. All problems resolve in the end.
An entire lifetime spent entertaining such stories can lead to delusions of grandeur. The Joseph Campbell hero’s journey fosters the notion that we might be special, that our unassuming lives might someday be revealed as globally and historically significant. We might be the Chosen One. We might save the world.
Such delusion was on full display Sunday night as various actors used their award acceptance speeches to preach against the imagined evils of the Trump administration. None proved more grandiose than David Harbour, star of the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things.” Accepting the award for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series, Harbour launched into a battle cry rallying his fellow artists to “repel bullies.” Here were his comments:
I would just like to say, in light of all that’s going on in the world today, it’s difficult to celebrate the already celebrated “Stranger Things.” But this award, from you who take your craft seriously and earnestly [and who] believe — like me — that great acting can change the world, is a call to arms from our fellow craftsmen and women to go deeper, and through our art to battle against fear, self-centeredness, and exclusivity of our predominately narcissistic culture, and through our craft to cultivate a more empathetic and understanding society by revealing intimate truths that serve as a forceful reminder to folks that when they feel broken and afraid and tired they are not alone. We are united in that we are all human beings and we are all together on this horrible, painful, joyous, exciting and mysterious ride that is being alive.
Now, as we act in the continuing narrative of “Stranger Things,” we 1983 Midwesterners will repel bullies. We will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no home. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters and when we are at a loss amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will, as per Chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the weak and the disenfranchised and the marginalized. And we will do it all with soul, with heart, and with joy. We thank you for this responsibility. Thank you.
The speech could have been punctuated by Harbour pulling a sword from a stone. Who knew acting carried such majestic purpose?
This trend to imbue every moment with eternally significant meaning betrays a deeply seeded insecurity. What’s wrong with acting just to act? What’s wrong with telling entertaining stories just to entertain? Why does everything have to be world-changing? The desire emerges from this Campbellian sense that we must quest against evil, that our lives must be special, that we must leave a mark upon our world that will remain eternal.
It’s silly, impractical, and unhealthy. It should be clear from a cursory examination of humanity that most individual lives don’t merit mention in the historical record. We may each prove special in the biblical sense, but cannot each be special in the Campbellian sense. We can’t all be the Chosen One. Beyond that, it’s unclear why we should want to be.
We should be able to derive satisfaction from a life well lived and a job well done without it fundamentally changing the world. Indeed, an obsession with being of grand consequence to history can lead one to neglect their true responsibilities. How many families have been worn or broken because one or more member sought “meaning” beyond? How much suffering and sadness could be avoided if people took joy in the simple things rather than aspiring to imagined greatness?
David Harbour is a fine actor. His work in “Stranger Things” may be his best to date. I — for one — am glad to see him getting recognition after a career of mostly that-guy-from-that-thing roles. That said, as accomplished a performer as Harbour may be, he’s not about to change the world. He would do well to find peace with that.