This post contains spoilers for the movie Inception (2010).
People love mysteries. Mystery is its own genre of media, the focus of countless books and films and every procedural police drama on television. Real-life mysteries also capture our attention – we are enraptured by true crime (recent adaptations of the OJ Simpson murder trial, both dramatized and documentary; podcasts like Serial; Making A Murderer) and historical exposes. That’s why the photograph below probably looks familiar.
Recently, a possible ‘solution’ to one of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries made headlines: Amelia Earhart’s final fate. A photograph that purportedly showed her and her navigator in the Marshall Islands of Japan after her disappearance was featured in a History Channel documentary. The truth about the last chapter of her journey had been uncovered at last.
Or not. Plenty of historians were quick to point out that one distant photograph, taken from behind, is hardly definitive. And information discrediting the Earhart interpretation of the photograph, which surfaced almost immediately after the photo made the rounds, didn’t get nearly as much attention.
Still, it felt exhilarating to be (possibly) privy to the final piece of the puzzle. Most of us were happy to accept that interpretation as tentatively true. A possibly-wrong answer is far more satisfying than no answer at all.
Because what people love about mysteries is solving them: looking at all the clues and using them to reach a neat, definitive conclusion. People are, in fact, profoundly uncomfortable with an unsolved mystery.
This is even clearer when one examines media, entertainment, and popular culture. We love stories – reading them, watching them, playing them out. Even real-life occurrences like sporting events are often shaped and presented as stories, with heroes and underdogs and personal stakes to give the audience something to root for. And a story, at least in Western culture, has a beginning, a middle, and – most significantly, for our purposes – an end.
Do you remember when movie audiences lost their collective minds at the ambiguous ending of Inception? The groans that filled countless theaters when the film cut before revealing whether the protagonist’s happy ending took place in reality or in a dream? Discussion flew. Some people hated it. There were detailed analyses of the rotation and wobble of the top – attempts to work out definitively whether it would have eventually fallen had the camera kept rolling. People were fixated on figuring out the truth. They needed to know, to be certain, what the ending meant.
[One of the articles in that Google search was published in July of 2017, seven full years after the film’s release.]
And that’s all in good fun. Ambiguous endings are intended to provoke discussion, and there’s nothing wrong with engaging deeply and seriously with a piece of media.
But it highlights the point of this article, which is that we – as a species, a culture, and to a greater or lesser degree as individuals – don’t like ambiguity. We don’t like leaving things unresolved.
And unfortunately, life is often ambiguous and all-too-frequently unresolved.
Life (and the universe and the people we interact with) are much more random than we’re ususally comfortable acknowledging. The storylines and subplots of our lives don’t always get tied up neatly. And most importantly: none of us is promised a happy (or even meaningful) ending.
The evidence for this is vast and disquieting. All one has to do is glance at the news or flip through a history book to encounter millions of cases where a complex and unique human being just like us, with goals and dreams just as important and meaningful as ours, met an abrupt, violent, or otherwise unsatisfying end – often for reasons beyond their personal control.
Life and death don’t care about our personal narrative arcs.
It’s a difficult truth to engage with. In fact, the entire body of human thought – all of philosphy and every religion – exists as a result of our attempts to wrestle with it and rationalize it and endure it.
[Many philosophical, religious, or spiritual beliefs handle life’s fundamental randomness by concluding that events that appear random and uncaring are in fact either predetermined by some benevolent plan or subject to some hand of universal justice. This blog obviously has no opinion on whether or not such beliefs are ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, whatever that means in a cosmic sense. On a practical, personal level, the experience of the uncertainty of life is universal.]
There is no one-size-fits-all response the challenge of maintaining hope, confidence, and optimism in a wildly uncertain universe in which we are often powerless to control important, life-altering circumstances and events. To propose one would be ludicrous. The point is that even though we collectively dislike ambiguity and uncertainty, and quite rightly devote large amounts of energy and intellectual power to solving as many mysteries as we can (be they scientific, historical, spiritual, or fictional), it’s important for each of us to acknowledge the great mystery and develop our own arsenal of tools and beliefs to manage it.
Because our happy endings, whatever they may look like for each of us, are not guaranteed.
We wanted to get the requisite existential crisis out of the way for the month – no more for October, we promise. If you want to come away on a different mental note, check out this comic. Only tangentially related to the post, but it segues well to the prompt below (which we highly recommend you check out).
Prompt: Write your own ending
Take your time with this. Maybe the entire month of October. Maybe longer.
Identify three things you want to achieve in your life, or ways you want your life to be shaped. These should be things you would regret not having pursued or accomplished if you were to die before doing so, not just short-term goals or benchmarks.
Don’t be afraid to think big – professionally or personally – but be authentic. Choose things you really want, not things you think you should want, or things you want to want.
This is not exactly a bucket list. “I want to visit Thailand” is not as illuminating as: “I want to travel widely and experience many places and cultures, because the world is wonderful and I want to see as much of it as I can” or “I want to immerse myself in a foreign language and culture, in order to deeply experience life in a place different from my home” or “I want to learn Thai and visit Thailand so I can connect with my roots, visit the land of my ancestors, and communicate with my extended family”.
So seriously, take your time. Try things on. Experiment with the wording. The objective is figure out exactly what you want, and what is extraneous.
Clarity is a powerful motivator.