Navigating the Maze

I don’t often get caught up in TV shows. Aside from playing re-runs of the same family-friendly sitcoms in the background while I work, I usually don’t find myself sitting down for all that long to get into a series. There are, however, a few good exceptions. Like most viewers, I found myself absolutely drawn into the phenomenon that is Westworld this past fall. Beyond reveling in the memories of the dusty old westerns that used to play on our TV, I was absolutely captivated by the underlying questions raised by the program with respect to identity, morality, and the excavation of the self.

            As a student of criminal justice, my prior work and areas of study have been inextricably linked to this pursuit. Robbers, drug addicts, and even murders don’t stray from the norms of our society purely by whim, nor do they simply choose to break away from these fundamental bonds wholly by choice. Our actions are the culmination of a variety of factors ranging from the environments we grew up in, the people we surround ourselves with, and the opportunities we’ve both pursued and perceive as available to us. Like Westworld’s charmingly innocent and wide-eyed lead, Dolores, we’re all stumbling through a maze made up of our impulses, our memories, and our actions in the hopes of uncovering the same, fundamental truth: Who we are underneath it all.

(Westworld Maze Logo: mattwilliamsart)

(Westworld Maze Logo: mattwilliamsart)

            While all of these various aspects of our past, present, and future fold together to create the most recognizable image of our self, it’s our stories that help to complete the picture. We all frame our experiences within the context of a greater narrative, yet another act in the grand production that is life. Writing out the stories of our lives in the spaces that fill our mind helps to provide a sense of purpose to our existence. Stories give context to our decisions and meaning to our actions.

            By way of example, one of the municipal boards that I volunteer with recently hosted a forum on the opiate epidemic within our community. In addition to the usual players from our law enforcement community, the evening’s roster of speakers included two mothers who had lost their sons to heroin overdoses and a recovering addict who had graduated from our local school district. In sharing his story, this young man felt compelled to also share his experience in finding redemption through Christ. "Religion may not be for everyone," he prefaced, "but it’s a big part of my story and I have to share it with you." He opened himself to the audience by sharing how hopeless and lost he had felt prior to his tryst with addiction. Under the pressure of trying to succeed in life, and later stalled by the perception of being stuck in a dead-end job with no immediate prospects, he turned to illicit substances for a quick release and in an attempt to fill this growing void. Now, six years of clean living later, he’d satiated the abyss with unwavering faith.

            It wasn’t simply prayer that helped him to find a new lease on life, however, but an entirely new perspective. In recounting the moment of his realization, the speaker expressed that he found the strength to overcome the urges to use again in appreciating the power in Christ’s sacrifice. "He died for my sins", he expressed with a genuine sense of awe and admiration, "so that I could have a second chance." Where this young man once found himself spiraling towards ruin, awash with hopelessness, he now found the courage to carve out the future he desired by re-envisioning his own story as part of a larger tale. In connecting his struggles to a broader narrative, he found a way to re-write his story the way he wanted.

"Stories give context to our decisions and meaning to our actions."

            Indeed, a 2009 study by John T. Cacioppo and Louise C. Hawkley of the University of Chicago found that the mere perception of hopelessness has a tremendous impact on our mental acuity. When we fail to see the light at the end of the tunnel, or try to look beyond the trees to glimpse the vast forest beyond our present point, we can face a greater risk for depression, social isolation, and even death. It’s a slippery slope, as one condition plays into the others, driving us further from our peers and into the grips of despair. For a social creature, there is no greater hell.

            Our concept of the self, our very sense of identity, is linked to our peers and our environment. The further we drift from these crucial anchors, the more unstable the guiding image of the captain at the helm of our lives becomes. The stories we craft and the messages we share, therefore, hold tremendous importance. After all, as human beings, we’ve evolved to not only draft these internal narratives; we’ve mastered the means of sharing them with those around us as both an art and a science.

          Our journey through the maze is not a solitary endeavor. Our successful completion of this great journey, the embodiment of a life’s work, is a group effort. More so than a happy ending, we yearn for our stories to have meaning. We don’t want to exit stage left without knowing that our time in the light had a purpose, and that we’ve fulfilled it. While the measure of personal success will vary from person to person and perspective to perspective, one thing remains constant. We all want to share our story of accomplishment with those around us, to ensure that our self lives on in the hearts and memories of generations to come.

            Perhaps, at the end of the day, there’s something to be said for working in a little TV time. After all, we all love a good story.

-Michael D. Johnson

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