I keep a spreadsheet of every film I’ve ever watched (since about 2011, anyway). Next to each film is the date I watched it and the rating I gave it. Sitting at the top of the list with the only perfect 10.0 rating is The Truman Show, a film I’ve watched north of a dozen times. I’m amazed at how with each screening I learn new things about the film’s universe, but on my last viewing I noticed something that stuck out to me as extra special.
For those that aren’t familiar with the film, it tells the story of Truman Burbank, a man who, unbeknownst to him, has lived every second of his life inside an artificial town constructed in a large dome (“the second man-made structure to be visible from space”), being broadcast non-stop around the world on a dedicated channel, where every stranger, “friend” and “family member” is played by an actor under the instruction of the show’s “director” and creator, Christof. Incredible novelty aside (the film predates reality TV and is partially credited for the creation of the genre), it’s an incredible watch and I implore you to check it out.
There’s one scene that contains a profound idea that only struck me on my last viewing. Truman, married to Meryl, is putting together a composite image of a girl from his past using images torn out from a magazine. You can watch the (magical) scene here if you like:
If you don’t have the time to watch, the broad notes are as follows: We reminisce with Truman back to the moments he shared with this mystery woman along the journey, culminating in their first proper meeting. In the last of these moments, Truman is at the library studying for his college exams, and he notices “Lauren”, familiar from fleeting glances exchanged in months gone by. He cautiously but excitedly approaches her for the first time, flirting briefly and asking her to make plans for a date. Lauren, love-struck but visibly distressed and weary that stepping outside of her role as an extra will result in certain expulsion by the show’s Director (“you know … I’m not allowed to talk to you”), repeatedly rebuffs Truman’s requests to make plans until she gives in and informs him that they should do something immediately: “if we don’t go now, it won’t happen.”
What made me pause on my last viewing was when Truman is badgering Lauren to give him a chance and he notices a pin that she is wearing. The pin reads “How’s It Going To End?” Truman comments that he likes it, and wryly tells her “I was wondering that myself.”
All at once, this struck me as an incredibly profound idea, especially when considering what it means in The Truman Show’s universe and what it could mean to us in our own.
In this film, we are presented with a world which is almost 100% controlled by one God-like character (naming him “Christof” was no accident). Every step made by every extra is planned and perfected, and every word that comes out of any character’s mouth is controlled by Christof, relayed in real-time to an earpiece each actor wears. Every behaviour, preference, idiosyncrasy and even “chaos” like the weather itself is strictly planned and controlled. Nothing is left to chance, and therefore, nothing is uncertain (Christof comments in an interview that “people forget that it takes the population of an entire country to run the show”). Nothing, that is, except for Truman.
What’s interesting about the scene is that Lauren’s pin has a double meaning. Whilst Truman seems to think it’s a kitschy piece of “woo woo”, we are told elsewhere in the film that “every piece of the actors’ clothing and even the homes they live in are all available for purchase … and operators are standing by.” The pin is, therefore, not a vague acknowledgment of the uncertain mystery that “life” is, it’s a piece of merchandise that devotees of The Truman Show might buy and which therefore poses a very specific question about Truman’s life: How will The Truman Show end?
So how do these two pieces of information coexist? If Truman’s entire existence is so tightly controlled, why is the show selling these pins, and why are fans asking “How’s it Going To End?”
This pin can only be posing an interesting question to the extent that the end of the show is genuinely uncertain. Despite every single variable in this farcical universe being under complete control by an essentially omnipotent and omniscient creator, the ending of the show becomes uncertain the instant one element of chaos is inserted into the equation. This variable is Truman himself, acting according to his own instincts and will. Will Truman die a happy man? Will he go crazy in this all-too idyllic world created for him? Will he realise the nature of his reality and escape? Where there is this one unpredictable agent, no matter how small, the question posed by the badge is a valid one. Christof, the showrunner, openly admits this: “if he was absolutely determined to discover the truth, there’s no way we could prevent him.” It is because of this uncertainty that viewers of the show buy this pin and collectively ask the simple question: how will the show end? It is also for this reason that Lauren, once she is kicked off the show, can still hold out hope that the show ends with Truman escaping his “prison.” As long as this one man acting in his own self interest remains unpredictable (in other words, “human”), the ending of The Truman Show is up in the air.
This provides food for thought when considered in light of how we might approach our own lives. If you’re normal, you probably wake up and place all sorts of expectations on how your day, week, or even life might play out. Each and every day is (sometimes greatly) affected by countless other variables that we act upon and which act upon us. This includes people acting in their own self-interest (or even against it), things (for instance, a car breaking down) or other phenomena (as simple as the weather, or as mysterious as random chance). Sometimes they drastically change the doors that are open to us, or the ones we choose to walk through. Often they are totally unpredictable. Almost always, they are out of our control.
It occurred to me when pondering on this badge in the movie that in my own life I almost endlessly fall into the trap of becoming rigidly attached to my own projection of how things should “end.” These are expectations based on plans I make, which in turn are based on desire for things to be a certain way. The mere fact that I have taken the time to want or expect something leaves me somehow sure that I “should” or “need to” see the sort of outcome that I have planned. What’s strange is that these expectations are subconsciously baked into my mind even more concretely than the Truman Show’s viewers’ expectations for Truman’s future, despite the fact that his world is infinitely more controlled and predictable than the one in which I live.
Most of us make plans to wind up in a certain career, in a certain location, alongside certain types of people and feeling a certain way on our own terms and according to our own defined timelines. It feels normal, but it is done in total ignorance of the large amount of totally chaotic variables (people, things and phenomena) we are subconsciously expecting to fall into line. Given the sheer volume of these factors, it seems as good as certain that either the cards dealt to us by these variables will be ones we weren’t planning for, and often ones we didn’t know were in the deck.
So why do we live this way? Why constantly plan, forecast, evaluate and react, despite the fact that we’re essentially bobbing like a fly on a cork in the ocean (albeit with a very small paddle), totally susceptible to forces outside of our control? Perhaps the notion that we have a plan gives us an illusion of “control” as we continue to paddle. This illusion may provide a kind of mental stability. Does it lull us into the (subconscious) and fallacious understanding, though, that just because we have a plan, it’s reliable, or we should expect to see it come to fruition? Is it easier to live with the delusion that you know how the path ahead looks than remaining painfully aware that we don’t? Maybe. Maybe not.
Unfortunately, it is this very delusion caused by planning and expecting (however harmlessly) that ultimately causes us the greatest suffering when things don’t go to plan, as often they don’t. The periods of suffering we all go through from time to time almost always amount to — at a fundamental level — a shortfall between our plans (what we expect) and the reality on the ground at a given point. The craving for things to be a bit more like we would have designed them is at the heart of arguably all suffering in one form or another, and it is merely the degree of deviation from our expectation (or how firmly we held that expectation) that dictate how excruciating it is. This is the foundation of Buddhist teaching — true suffering comes from either craving for something to be better, or aversion to the things being worse. Equanimity is the goal that delivers lasting peace (granted, this is much easier said than lived).
So what is the solution? Maybe we could turn to our friend Lauren and her badge. What can we learn from this simple question? Is there an alternative approach to suffering from the world’s chaos hiding in plain sight in this scene from an old movie? Sam Harris argues that there’s no such thing as free will: the actions of other people are driven by a combination of their immutable nature or long-entrenched nurture. Non-human things like the weather or random chance are even more outside your domain of control. Your own actions are arguably the most predictable variable in the mix — you’ll continue to do your best to do your best each step of the way. When thought about this way, it seems absurd to believe you have a hope of totally (or even partially) controlling where your life ends up any more than you can control the direction a roller coaster takes once you strap yourself in. To continue with this analogy, what if we could derive some sort of radical comfort from such an idea? Rather than scheming about the twists and turns ahead of us and praying that the ride takes us in the direction that we plan, what if instead we armed ourself with a sense of wonder and excitement about what is in store for us? A left turn might no longer represent a failed opportunity to turn right but instead an enjoyable new direction we’d have never imagined (and one which we couldn’t have foreseen or changed no matter what we tried). If nothing else, it may allow us to get on with putting one foot in front of the other and focus on enjoying the ride a little more as we go through it, wondering all the while: How’s It Going To End?