On perspective and heroes.

On perspective and heroes.

We are the heroes of our own stories, which makes it easy to think that anyone who opposes us is a villain. To think, perhaps, that the libs are out to destroy the United States. Or, conversely, that right-wingers are undermining the social contracts of our country.

But to those people’s perspective, they’re the heroes. We might not be happy about their choices – I know I’m often not! – but other people are trying their best, too.

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In a grocery store checkout lane in Chicago, I found myself talking to a cashier about their tattoos. They’d recently finished a tableau from Greek mythology across their back, a project that had taken years.

Because I’m both a mythology fan and an excessively earnest person, I asked this person about their favorite characters from Greek mythology.

“Well,” they said, “I’m really happy with the Medusa on my back.”

“Oh, cool!” I exclaimed. “Medusa is one of my favorites, too! Medusa and Arachne.”

“Well,” they said, momentarily abashed, “my tattoo has Perseus holding Medusa’s head.”

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Medusa and Arachne are heroes who oppose the abuses of privilege & power. In a world of harmful traditions – deities who treat mortals as their playthings, who would never dream of asking for consent because human autonomy matters so little compared to the desires of a god – Medusa and Arachne fought back. Their cause appeared doomed from the beginning; nevertheless, they persisted.

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Medusa was a beautiful young woman who worked in Athena’s temple, up until Athena’s uncle Poseidon broke into the temple and assaulted Medusa. Then Athena was angry that her temple had been defiled, and so she cursed Medusa to be so hideous that she’d turn onlookers to stone.

Athena, in her cruelty, wanted only to punish the victim, but even gods make mistakes: Medusa brandished her curse as though it were a gift, suddenly dangerous even to the gods.

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Because Arachne was proud of her achievements as an artist, Athena challenged her to a competition. Although Arachne had no hope of wining a subjective contest against a god, judged by gods, she used the contest as an opportunity to convey a heretical message: that the lives of a lesser species are as inherently meaningful to them as the lives of gods are to gods. Her artwork depicted transgressions and wanton cruelty committed against us human animals by the divine.

Athena was enraged. How dare a mere nothing creature question her kind’s treatment at the hands of her superiors? The offending artwork was promptly destroyed; Arachne was cursed to live on in an even more loathesome form.

We humans would be just as irked if a cow or a lab rat began protesting the ways we’ve treated them.

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In their interactions with Athena, both Medusa and Arachne are tragic heroes, victims who are punished further for having been victimized. As characters in their own right, they’re my favorites, clear champions of the powerless.

And yet, they exist within a whole universe of overlapping stories. As symbols, they can be interpreted in myriad ways.

In a subsequent myth, a wealthy aristocrat tried to rid himself of a nettlesome young man named Perseus by demanding that Perseus bring him a gift of Medusa’s severed head. But then Athena helped Perseus find & kill Medusa. And so Medusa as a symbol can represent almost any adversity. In her interaction with Perseus, she is simply an obstacle to be overcome. To Perseus, Medusa represents a troubled past, a looming calamity.

Symbols twist & shift as our perspective changes.

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In Pulp Fiction (which I haven’t seen in almost two decades, worried that I’d now like it less), John Travolta spends much of the film as the hero. He charms viewers, saying “I gotta know what a five dollar shake tastes like” before taking a sip using Uma Thurman’s straw.

But in the scene when John Travolta dies, he’s irrelevant. Just a background prop. A villain. A symbol. At that moment, Bruce Willis is the hero, and we’re wrapped up in his perspective.

And then, because the episodes in Pulp Fiction are presented out of order, John Travolta is alive again. As soon as he returns to the screen, he’s the hero. His ignominious impending demise is irrelevant to our perception of his antics.

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Medusa is not a monster; she is a victim.

Medusa is a monster; she has the power to stave off even gods.

Medusa is a monster; Perseus shows us that with faith and pluck, we too might triumph over adversity.

In stories, all can be true at once.

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header image by Victoria Borodinova

photograph of marble statue of Perseus with Medusa’s head (carved by Antonio Canova) by Mary Harrsch

Medusa miniature sculpted collaboratively with my five-year-old on a day she had to stay home from school, following advice from Dinko Tilov in “Sculpting Mythical Creatures Out of Polymer Clay.”

On self-importance.

On self-importance.

We only have one life to live. We only have so much time.

How will we use it?

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There’s a trade-off that many privileged people face – should we focus on family or our career? This choice is especially stark for women, who are often expected to be the primary caretakers for their families, no matter how stellar their career prospects.

Everyone has different priorities, and nearly everyone will end up feeling a wistful sense of regret someday.

Would we be happier if we’d chosen differently? If we’d had children younger? Or if we’d postponed children, spent a few more years building a name for ourselves?

We’ll never know for sure.

In Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, though, the protagonist finds his answer.

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NOTE: Dark Matter is a scary science fiction thriller. I enjoyed reading it. Crouch is an excellent storyteller, and he handles almost all the science really well. If you like thrillers, you’d probably enjoy it.

If you’re thinking about reading it, you might not want to read the rest of this essay now, because it’ll spoil some of the plot for you.

Maybe you should navigate away from this page to check the catalog at your local library! Don’t worry – this essay will still be here next month, after you’ve finished the book.

Or maybe you feel like you can’t handle scary thrillers right now, what with regular life being so inordinately stressful. In which case you’re welcome to carry on reading this essay.

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The protagonist of Dark Matter, Jason, is a brilliant scientist who chose to put his family first – his career has floundered, but his home life is content.

Jason wonders what might have been. A friend from graduate school is winning accolades — fancy grants, publications, and awards.

I could’ve had all that, he thinks wistfully.

In Joseph Heller’s Good As Gold, professor Bruce Gold thinks, “There is no disappointment so numbing as someone no better than you achieving more.” After helping his friend celebrate yet another award, Jason trudges home feeling a similar sentiment.

But then he meets another Jason – a version of himself who, years ago, chose to prioritize his career instead. That Jason has no family. That Jason invented a machine to jump between realities, to enter timelines in which different choices had been made.

That Jason – who chose personal glory over caretaking – is even less happy. And so he kidnaps the initial protagonist, stealing his family and launching him through the machine back into a world where everyone adores his utter brilliance.

And that’s when the first Jason, who’s had a chance to experience both worlds, realizes: love matters more. Money, sex, adulation – none of it can replace his family. He wants to be back with his spouse and child. He’s willing to do anything to get there.

Even murder the myriad copies of himself who all want the same thing.

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Despite the horrific violence, it’s actually a beautiful way to depict priorities – Crouch shows the value of caretaking by giving his protagonist a choice. Suddenly, Jason is freed from his past. He could be anywhere. He could live in a world where he’d used his earlier time in any possible way.

He wants to be in the place where he chose to love.

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A strange quirk of storytelling is the ease with which we, the audience, transfer our empathy and compassion to a protagonist. Even a wretched protagonist – if Bojack Horseman were a peripheral character in someone else’s show, he’d obviously be a villain. And yet, in his own show, I cared about him. I wanted him to succeed, even though he’d done nothing to deserve it.

Quentin Tarantino toys with this idea in Pulp Fiction – when John Travolta is the protagonist, sipping an expensive milkshake or reviving his boss’s spouse, I felt deeply invested. But when Bruce Willis is the protagonist and kills Travolta, I don’t care at all – at that moment, I’m only interested in Willis’s experience.

Than Travolta comes back – and behaves horribly – and, somehow, I find myself caring about him again. His impending pointless death is suddenly irrelevant. He jokes that Samuel Jackson wants to be a bum and I laugh along.

We make the same mistake in our own lives – we see ourselves as more important than we really are.

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A friend’s daughter recently landed in jail, busted over heroin and Xanax. My friend feels conflicted about her daughter’s arrest – being in jail is awful, “But the way she was going, she would’ve died if she didn’t end up there.”

“The problem is, she worries too much. Worries so much about what other people think of her.”

“But she’s starting to get it now. To realize that she doesn’t have to worry, because other people aren’t thinking of her at all.”

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In Dark Matter – as in Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics – with every decoherence, the universe splits. Every outcome is real and propagates through time.

(If you like stories set within this framework, I highly recommend Ted Chiang’s “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom,” published in the collection Exhalation.)

And so there are infinitely many copies of Jason who all want to return to his family – every choice that he’s made since the kidnapping has created another world, another Jason hoping to return.

They will all stop at nothing to rescue their spouse and child. And so they begin to kill each other. Infinitely many Jasons are converging on the world they left.

This convergence seems almost plausible while reading, based on the physics of Dark Matter. The problem being, of course, our lapse into self-importance. Our quirk of prioritizing the experiences of a central character.

Within that world, there would be infinitely many Jasons … but there would also be infinitely many copies of the “stolen” spouse and child. Just as many quantum decoherence events would have occurred in their lives as in his.

Comparing the magnitude of infinite numbers can feel puzzling. For example, it might seem like there should be twice as many numbers as there are even numbers … only every other number is even, after all!

But these infinite quantities are the same. If you write every number on a ball, and then you write even numbers on buckets, there are no balls that can’t be put into a bucket. Each ball labeled “N” goes into a bucket labeled “2 * N”.

Infinitely many balls, infinitely many buckets, and the infinities match.

In Dark Matter, there would be infinitely many Jasons, but also infinitely many worlds that he had left behind, so the likelihood of reaching a world with more than two of himself – the protagonist and the original villain – would be vanishingly small.

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In World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil describes a vacation to Kerela, India, with her new spouse. They were eating dinner on a houseboat when they heard noises from the roof.

A troop of macaques were up there eating fruit. Then a wildcat came and chased the macaques off the roof, but the macaques still stayed nearby, watching.

Nezhukumathil and her spouse felt worried – would the macaques attack? Steal their food? They tried to convey their worries to a local resident, who laughed at them. And the monkeys seemed to laugh at them, too.

Nezhukumathil and her spouse finished their dinner quickly and then went inside the houseboat. That night, for the first time that trip, they locked the door to their cabin – “as if these macaques would know how to turn a doorknob and latch.”

“The last thing I remember hearing that night was a distant meowing and chatter-like laughter, and I swear, somewhere in the back waters of Kerala, those bonnet macaques are still having a good laugh over us.”

It’s an easy fallacy to slip into. An experience that’s rare for me – taking a vacation, visiting a doctor, buying a wedding ring – takes on outsize importance precisely for its rarity.

But the salesperson at Goldcasters helps giddy young couples every day. I have a clear memory of the E.R. nurse who gave me a rabies vaccine at 3 a.m., but there’s almost no chance she remembers me – she’s been doing that sort of thing for years.

The macaques spook tourists – and perhaps steal their food, purses, or loose necklaces – every day.

Macaques have their own conscious experience of the world. In their stories, they’re the protagonists. We humans merely dot the periphery. Nameless and forgettable, we fade into the background.

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As we choose how to live, it helps to maintain a sense of humility about our importance to the greater world.

In time, our money will be gone. Our personal glory, too.

Helping others – choosing caretaking over our careers, at times – can connect our stories to something bigger than an individual.

Of course, eventually all of that will disappear, too. The whole world is terminal – our sun will fade, our species will go extinct, our universe’s entropy will increase until there’s no more heat, no more warmth for anything to happen.

So we also need to prioritize personal happiness while we’re here.

Luckily, loving others tends to make us happy.