The Problem with Stories of Conflict, and Stories of Dullness

I’m currently reading “The Nix” by Nathan Hill (which is a humorous tale about a kid with a traumatic childhood). As I’m reading about Samuel’s messed up past (his mom abandoned him, he had a weird childhood friend who potentially crossed some lines, a student that is out to get him fired, his unfulfilled potential), I began thinking about how every story that seems to be out there revolves around either (A) a main character who has some severe issues or (B) a main character who has no severe issues but has a really boring life; I can’t think of any book that includes a main character who has no problems and is also not boring.

I attribute part of this to what I call the “American Idol” phenomenon: we like to digest stories about people’s lives who are worse train wrecks than our own. It makes us feel better about our own lives. When we are allowed glimpses into the world of other people (even if they are fictional characters), and we become in tune to their struggles, it makes our struggles seem lesser; we become affixed to these issues and traumas and wounds and obstacles, because without them, there would be no enticing storyline to string us along (Aristotle says this is ‘catharsis’–the purging of pity and fear–that, as humans, we walk around with so much pent up tension, anxiety, fear, and other emotions that we are attracted to stories because, once that climax hits, we are given the opportunity to purge those emotions, and we feel better).

On the best seller list right now includes “All the Light We Cannot See” (a book about a blind girl and an orphan who becomes a Nazi), “The Woman in the Window” (a story about a a prescription drug problem) and “The Wife Between Us” (which, I haven’t read, but sounds like a story about an affair). Among the top movies, we have ‘Phantom Thread’ (another movie about a relationship in turmoil), ‘The Shape of Water’ (a story about fish-man and deaf lady falling in love), and ‘I, Tonya’ (the story of Tonya Harding’s tragic trailer park-to-fame life). All of these–stories about people’s lives in turmoil, loss, hardship, grief, despair.

Then, there are popular stories, such as ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’, ‘A&P’ by John Updike, which have main characters who are relatively conflict-free, but then display this conflict-free lifestyle as one that is less than ideal; Walter Mitty is old and doesn’t have anything going for him; Charlie, who is basically mute and also doesn’t have any friends; Sammy, who works a monotonous job and ends up quitting because it is so life-sucking. We, clearly, don’t want to live these boring, ordinary, repetitive lives either–because they suck.

Throughout these books and movies and T.V. shows and other media outlets, we are told that we must either live a life with a lot of constant conflict, or we will live a boring life (there’s no such thing as a life that is conflict-free and also ideal).

The problem inlays when we are unable to separate our real lives with the story lives we read in books, see on T.V., watch in movies. I think the false narrative we get from these stories is that our lives must either be in a constant state of dysfunction and chaos OR boring and mundane, and we carry those expectations into our everyday lives; we must either have this childhood wound that, at age 48, we are still nursing OR if we lived a happy childhood, that is also tragic because we have no childhood wound to attribute our spousal disagreements on; we must be experiencing this internal, moral conflict with ourselves regarding our boss, OR we must be unsatisfied with the monotony of our job; we must have some kind of physical ailment that causes us insecurities in the world that we must overcome, OR we are quite average looking, and that is unacceptable as well. Because, in the stories we read, there is no such thing as having a life with no urgent problems and that also still being an exciting and acceptable existence.

But, there is something about living a peaceful existence–one that is neither too chaotic and also not boring. We see this so often when building love stories. Because we grew up, thinking ‘Gone with the Wind’ is the ‘greatest love story of all time’, and we watched Noah and Allie pledge their devotion to each other in ‘The Notebook’, and we watch Cory and Topanga’s relationship struggles throughout the seven seasons of “Boy Meets World”, we envision that our own happily ever afters should carry the same amount of turmoil and tension–that we forget these are fiction stories, written by people who have control over everything–the obstacles, other characters reactions, the kiss we’ve all been waiting for at the end. So, when we forecast our own love stories, we carry the same expectations. We think that a ‘good relationship’ is one when we are constantly chasing the other one and questioning whether we like them or not. We expect that we will know we are in love when we watch them go off and marry someone else and start building a house, because we know they will eventually come back. And, when our relationships are boring, mundane, conflict-free, based on the “true love stories” we compare ourselves to, we think there must be something wrong. We forget that we live in reality, where we are dealing with humans, who exhibit human traits, where our endings are not always neat and tidy, where it is actually healthier to exist in this in between that books and movies and stories don’t ever portray.

It’s funny too–while all of these books and stories about human suffering and mundaneness find themselves on the fiction best selling list, it is the books about living a conflict-free acceptable life that populate the self help section; ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*CK” (a book about learning to live and accept the present and to not desire more), Brene Brown (who writes about finding ways to live in your shame, discomfort, awkwardness in order to exist freely from those negative emotions), and then lots of marriage and relationship books (which, ironically, focus on how to resolve conflict in your marriage and relationships so that you aren’t always fighting like a Taylor Swift song).

So, perhaps these are more of the stories we should be reading?

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