The Genre of Life

I have been obsessed with two thoughts over the last few days, and I suspect they’re related somehow.

The first is the Buddhist (and philosophical) idea that the “self” – that part of our mental existence that identifies as “me” – is a construct that is flexible, malleable, and holds no real meaning in the physical world beyond that which we assign it.

To be more specific, the Buddhist idea of Anattā states that there is no permanent “self,” and is largely used as a strategy to practice non-attachment by recognizing that nothing is permanent, everything is in flux and largely beyond our individual control.

Believing that the “self” doesn’t exist can simultaneously be freeing and crippling – I have the freedom to be whomever I wish to be in any given moment, but I am denied the comfort of truly being someone or something concrete. While it helps in the quest to not become attached to the physical things of this world, it can be debilitating sometimes to not truly know who you are.

The second is a discussion I happened upon concerning movie and TV tropes, and how characters in certain types of movies and TV shows tended to act in a certain way despite all common sense, just to further the plot or storyline. The quote was something like, “a character cannot be reasonably expected to know what genre they are in.”

This idea struck me and has stuck with me, because I am one who actively and willingly engages in the suspension of disbelief while watching a show or movie, right up until the point that a character acts in a non-sensical way. I had never stopped to consider that the character doesn’t know what I know, specifically the genre of the story I am watching. So no, I would never go down into the basement to check on an odd noise if I knew I was in a horror movie, but I have gone down to the basement to check on odd noises in my real, non-horror-movie life. Had I suspected I was actually in a horror movie, I would never have acted so rashly.

The differences between these two scenarios is very obvious. In the fictionalized world of entertainment – even shows that purport to be based on true stories – the genre is very evident. Some genres even have “true” in their titles – “true crime podcasts” springs immediately to mind. In “real” life, however, we are left with a hodge-podge of different genres, all occurring simultaneously. They overlap to the point where you cannot tell where the “action/adventure” stops and the “romantic comedy” begins.

More importantly, it often leads to frustration. We want our lives to be like a romantic comedy, or an action/adventure flick, or any of a thousand other options. And when it doesn’t happen, we feel that we’re missing something, that there is something wrong with our lives.

This is where non-attachment comes in. The freedom to choose, and the realization that things happen and we will be much better off mentally and emotionally if we just accept that some things happen and we have no control over the outcomes, is a welcome relief. We are free to act in such a way that causes no harm, and we let the chips fall where they may. We accept responsibility for our actions and their effect on the outcome, and learn from our mistakes.

The truth is that our lives are not twenty-two minute sitcoms, or two hour action movies. Our lives defy categorization, genre-ification.

We are who we are. Nothing more and nothing less.

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