A couple of weeks ago, before I went on vacation and avoided email and work like the plague for ten days, author and columnist Robert Bidinotto posted a column about the impact of heroic fiction on the development of the psyche. It’s a through-provoking an moving piece. It literally brought a tear to my eye, when, expounding the effects of his love of heroes, particularly Superman, he says:
I can’t tell you how important such experiences were to a lonely little kid with a big imagination, growing up in that four-room ranch house. Those heroes told me that life didn’t have to be a series of boring, empty routines. That there was more to the world than the claustrophobic rural township where I grew up. That the universe was a huge place filled with adventure and romance, open to infinite, exciting possibilities.
But, most importantly, that you always had to stand up for justice.
Like millions of other kids from that era, I took all this very seriously.
I still do.
This passage reminded me of the impact heroic fiction had had upon me as a child, and continues to have today. During the toughest times of my development (and I believe I’m still developing, lo these 47 years later), heroic fiction has assuaged my loneliness, inspired me to dream, and provided me with an escape from a world which has a habit of delighting in being ugly every now and then.
In the course of his wonderful essay (which is in part a reprint of an earlier work on the same theme), he references a study performed at Ohio State University. Said study concluded that readers who “lose themselves” in a story can actually be bringing on profound changes in their own behavior, as if they’d actually lived through the events described by the author and were changed as a result. They call it “experience taking.”
It’s a neat idea. It’s intuitive to me. Of course I’m changed by what I read or watch. If I weren’t, what would be the bloody point of reading or watching? (Apparently, for some, the point is to be reminded how stupid other people are, and how lucky you are to be you, without the need to change. Witness Jersey Shore.)
But the conclusions the researchers apparently drew from the study slipped in a judgment in my opinion not drawn from their data, but from their own conditioning under the worst excesses of Judeo-Christian philosophy, namely that anything that is rooted in the self is evil, and anything that is rooted in a desire to help others is good. In an interview, grad student Geoff Kaufman said that:
Experience-taking doesn’t happen all the time. It only occurs when people are able, in a sense, to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading, Kaufman said. In one experiment, for example, the researchers found that most college students were unable to undergo experience-taking if they were reading in a cubicle with a mirror.
“The more you’re reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you’ll be able to take on a character’s identity,” Kaufman said.
“You have to be able to take yourself out of the picture, and really lose yourself in the book in order to have this authentic experience of taking on a character’s identity.”
With all due respect to Mr. Kaufman, I find the conclusion dubious and not necessarily supported by his experiment. As someone with a small amount of stage acting experience and training in same, I can say that the method I’ve always used to get inside the head of a character, any character, is to find in him (or her–I’ve done it) a piece of myself, something with which I can identify. That give me the opening I need to understand how the character feels and reacts, even if the script says the character reacts differently than I would in the same situation. I don’t lose myself in the character, I find myself in him, and then I let him into me.
Reading or viewing is the same for me. No matter how much I love a character for his competence, his bravery, his sexual prowess, I need to find something in that character that makes me feel a kinship with him before I can live his experience. Superman is an outsider, like Mr. Spock. Captain Kirk is lonely, like Batman. Spider-Man feels tremendous guilt over the mistakes he’s made. The Bionic Woman is afraid of snakes and prone to cry when things get overly stressful. These are humanizing qualities meant, not to make us forget ourselves, but to make us say, “Yea, my brother/sister, I been there!”
Reading with a mirror distracts you? I believe that. It would sure distract me, because the middle-aged dude with the crow’s feet and the too-wide face does not look like Steven H. Wilson to me. I know what Steven H. Wilson looks like from the inside, and it’s not that guy in the mirror. We are so much more than the face in the mirror that the image is a distraction for us when we try to connect with out true selves.
Let’s face it, does anyone like the way they look? I can name a lot of people who should like the way they look, but I’ve never met anyone who really did. We don’t look good to ourselves. For instance, I have a son whom others say looks exactly like I did when I was his age. I’ve seen the photos. It’s not a passing resemblance. To me, my son is a handsome devil. Women should run screaming from him, for fear of what his good looks might make them do. But I’m not a handsome devil. My face should just make women run screaming, you ask me. So how can we look alike? It’s all relative. I’m probably better looking than that guy in the mirror, and I might (might!) be a bit prejudiced about how handsome my son is.
Bottom line, we don’t like our faces. They get in the way of how we see ourselves. But that’s not the same as having to forget our own identity in order to have empathy for others, or to gather experience by living vicariously through a fictional hero. The “lose yourself” line is straight out of the worst New Testament-inspired collectivism. It’s the kind of thinking that says you must put your self on the cross and let it die so that the Holy Spirit can enter in. Yeah? Well if I’m dead, what exactly is the Holy Spirit getting access to?
I prefer an alternate theologically inspired spin: the one that says we all have a spark of the divine within us. We all carry around a piece of God or the gods or the Goddess, and that piece gives us access to the divine. If we quiet our mind of worldly influences, we can hear that still, small voice. I think fiction takes this concept a bit farther. That still, small voice isn’t just within us. It can be within anyone. We can hear it or read it in the words of others. We can connect our piece of the divine to theirs. I think that’s what happens when you really enjoy a piece of fiction. You don’t lose yourself. You find yourself.
Nor do I think this idea should exclude atheists. If you don’t believe in a higher power, an afterlife or what have you, you’re still the only one of you that there ever will be. As Ayn Rand said, your own happiness is your highest moral value. And you won’t attain it by sublimating yourself. You won’t learn to get along with others if you always see them as better than you, more worthy of love than you, more noble than you. You’ve got to believe that there’s something special about you, and that that bit of specialness can be expanded by exposure to the specialness in others. (I was about to say “exposure to the special bits of others,” but that might promote undue giggling.)
“Lose yourself” doesn’t sit well with me. I will never lose myself, even temporarily, if I have anything to say about it. The desire to lose oneself sounds an awful lot like self-hatred to me. And no matter what I think of that face in the mirror, I’m not about to start hating myself.