Napoleon Dynamite made me tired. I watched it with friends who found the energy (and apparently humor) to laugh at the right spots (I assume). I swallowed an entire bag of Twizzlers (which should have sustained me), and still, the lethargy put me to sleep. When it gained popularity with the coveted Dumb and Dumber crowd, I was shocked—so shocked that I contemplated its apparent ingenuity until I came to an obvious conclusion about the plot-less story: It is simply realism. Unexpectedly and naturally, Napoleon Dynamite came lollygagging along at a postmodern gaunt, exposing society’s love affair with actuality and authenticity. In a vulnerable moment I was quite proud of Hollywood.
It got me thinking about the art of storytelling. Before Aristotle, before Beowulf, stories began when the words, “Let there be …” Since then, myths have established humanity’s understanding of purpose. Profound truths have been communicated in layers of imagination. But, like all storytellers know, it takes more than an imagination to craft a plot. Literary experts credit Aristotle with the traditionally accepted bell curve format (in order): the initial situation, conflict, climax, suspense and the final denouement (resolution). The plot line takes the reader (watcher, listener) on an emotional journey up a steep, precarious mountain, hangs them at the top in a suspenseful tension, sends them free-falling into a dipping valley, and settles them in a state of relaxation and satisfaction.
But if the bell-curve is supposed to leave the inner conscious content, then why is reality TV exploding on prime time? Why Napoleon Dynamite?
Every single person birthed on this planet has a personal plot, but contrary to the ancient story form, it’s not a bell curve. Humanity always takes small steps in small moments from one place to another. If individuals lived every day in constant anticipation, expecting one big climactic moment, depression would be on the rise. Daily life would become a monotonous routine. Potential energy would replace kinetic, and kinetic energy would become obsolete. We would be lost in a maze of false anticipation.
Perhaps we are a depression-ridden society bent on working from a source of potential energy. We are restless, always wanting bigger things, more excitement—we forget our true desires: To create and enjoy the blessings of relationship. Worse, we forget that imagination, creation and meaning originates with the Creator. With greed, we take them and try to run with them on our own. The maze confusion begins when we believe we can sustain our own story; it’s then we’ll enter the realm of disappointment. Not until we wallow in weathered retirement will life slow down. Our eyes will open in astonishment at the drama before us, and we’ll see what we’ve always been afraid to admit: Life isn’t about us. If it was, it would be meaningless—short as our days and the breath on our lips.
Could the traditional plot line we view in movies and read in literature be a crutch—the false hope we hold on to? We are taught to expect big, life-changing moments like those we see in imaginary characters’ lives. The problem is that we forget they are our made-up stories—they are made the way we want them to be. Acting as if we live them, believing the story revolves around us ignites a dangerous flaw: egotism.
We want to be the one things happen to. Expecting a climactic life is surprisingly arrogant and suggests that the problem is not so subtle as a plot line.
In his book Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller points to the elements of a plot to prove the existence of original sin. The very fact that conflict exists in the plot of any good story proves it is only a photograph of our dark nature. We ourselves create the characters that experience a bell curve. Our make-believe actors can expect a climax because they always have one (and a happy ending). We birth the plot, watch and read it, and we continue to feed it until it takes control of us. This is the danger of sin.
“We look for visions from heaven and for earth-shaking events to see God’s power. Even the fact that we are dejected is proof that we do this. Yet we never realize that all the time God is at work in our everyday events and in the people around us. If we will only obey, and do the task that He has placed closest to us, we will see Him. One of the most amazing revelations of God comes to us when we learn that it is in the everyday things of life that we realize the magnificent deity of Jesus Christ” (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest).
Even though realistic life gradually turns, growing and moving the individual down the road of maturity and spiritual growth, it is obviously not what we want to experience. We want the big thing because God made us so: We were created for heaven. But heaven is after the earthly life, and the only climax meant and needed for this life occurred two thousand years ago on a cross. All of time hinged on the moment of redemption for humanity. Because of his grace, we live in the valley: Faith from yesterdays, love for today, and hope in the tomorrow.
Storytelling is a beautiful art, but like all art, unless it comes from the Creator itself it is limited. Flaws exist even within the beauty of language. For this, I am thankful. Thank God for culture and literature that shows us our human condition. Thank God for the art of the story that proves our need for a Savior. And thank God for the climax of heaven. That’s what I call sweet anticipation.