I always wanted to be Indiana Jones. I was the only nine-year-old on the block with a fedora and a genuine bullwhip. I watched the movies all the time. I couldn’t get enough ancient tombs and hidden doors and mine-cart chases. That was the appeal for me, the action. It wasn’t until I grew up a bit that I started to actually understand the plots of some of the movies I was watching. It wasn’t just a familiar parade of fascinating scenes, those scenes actually caused each other. None of them stood alone.
The deeper message in the story always went over my head too. It was the spectacle I was interested in, the romance and drama, not so much the people. I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark several times before I even realized that the dorky professor at the beginning was Indiana Jones.
As I grew up, I realized that the real power of story was in the development of the characters, not the exploding jeeps. Drama and bombast are cool to look at, but ultimately unfulfilling by themselves. As author Jon Franklin said: “All stories are about people.”
I do still love Indiana Jones, especially Raiders of the Lost Ark, but something about the ending never really sat well with me, and now I know why. If you recall, the Nazis end up capturing the Ark of the Covenant, along with Indy and his girlfriend Marion. They tie them both to a post, and proceed to open the mysterious ark, only to have evil spirits emerge and disintegrate everyone but our heroes.
It was rather anticlimactic. Indy was supposed to save the day, wasn’t he?
But he didn’t. He was outmatched and soundly defeated, he just got lucky. Sort of like when those unidentified riflemen suddenly arrive to shoot all the bad guys at the end of Temple of Doom.
There is a name for this lame kind of ending: deus ex machina. It means “god from the machine,” a reference to the ancient playwright Euripedes’ dubious habit of using a pulley system to lower an actor dressed up as God onto the stage, to solve the problems of the characters and wrap up the story. Curiously, Euripedes often cast himself as God.
Deus ex machina is generally regarded as poor storytelling, because it overrides the plot and character actions leading up to it, and robs the protagonist of her purpose: to change. It’s lazy, and worse, it makes the character’s suffering meaningless, by using luck to clean it all up. It emphasizes the importance of the outcome, rather than the reasons behind it: it honors the What, and dismisses the far more interesting Why.
The most common form of deus ex machina is the “Oh, it was all just a dream” plot device. What a letdown. Why take us on this journey at all? Just to see some stuff happen, then pray for a palatable outcome? There’s no growth, no transformation, no learning. If the hero fails, then make it a genuine tragedy. Teach us something that way. Make it real, rather than tidy and safe.
Deus ex machina in Real Life
Unfortunately, the ineptitude of depending on deus ex machina to erase problems and save the day is not confined to the realm of fiction. It’s not uncommon for a person to actually live with this same reliance on something or somebody else to intervene and take responsiblity for the mess in which he finds himself.
We all do it, sometimes, to some degree. We casually hope for favorable outcomes to be created by others, though most often we’re willing to pick up the slack when the universe doesn’t deliver. But for some, placing the onus on others — or the world at large, or the stars above — is the primary strategy.
It was mine for a while. I held out hope that the situation around me would change, so that my current capabilities would be enough. When I was unemployed and depressed, I would regularly set out to ‘pound the pavement’ downtown. But most of that time I spent merely wandering, lost in internal dialogue and fantasizing about some rich executive stopping me on the street to offer me a great job. I sat on benches, gazing at the skyscrapers, dreaming up these unlikely scenarios of salvation. Looking back, I don’t think any part of me grew during that whole time, except my fear of responsibility and dislike for myself.
I know this is common.
What do we need saving from? In a word, unhappiness. Unease or unpleasantness of some kind. It’s as simple as that: in the course of our stories, we undoubtedly run into dilemmas and hardships, and naturally we seek liberation from them. The question is, who are we looking to?
There are many real-life forms of deus ex machina. Certain vehicles of salvation are quite popular, perhaps you or someone you know is waiting for one of them to make the story go the way it’s supposed to.
Being discovered — A big one in America. The surprise book deal, the record contract, the starring role. The opening episodes of American Idol are always a great showcase for this.
The soulmate — Somewhere out there, the other half of you is searching for you. He’s as lost as you are, but that confusion and destitution will end for both of you, in the unforgettable moment when your eyes meet at the laundromat or the water cooler or the coffee shop. He’s brilliant and handsome, he writes you poetry, and most importantly, he needs you. Any sense of emptiness you currently feel within you is only natural, since there is another person that belongs there.
The self-help breakthrough — Deep in the pages of the 28th self-help book you buy, lies the perfect piece of wisdom. It’s simple and brilliant, and best of all, only $12.95. Everything will suddenly click, and you’ll wonder why you were ever unhappy. Life will take on a light and easy tone thereafter.
Self-help junkyism seems to be on the rise. One does get a bit of a high from reading about the possibility of a better life, and for some the benefit ends there. It’s not that these materials can’t help you — some of them are quite profound — but if they work at all, it’s only when you add the secret ingredients: action and responsibility. During my down-and-out job-hunting period, one day I came home upset and defeated and started rereading the excellent book The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz, looking for answers. My mother, who was also a fan of it, said “That won’t help you.” I argued, but I knew she was right.
Little changes to the situation — Extremely common, small-scale deus ex machina. We cross our fingers for a favorable outcome to emerge from uncertainty. Characterized by a tense, woeful feeling in the solar plexus. Oh, I hope he doesn’t sit next to me. Oh, I hope she calls tonight. Oh, I hope they love my article and tell all their friends.
Big changes to the situation — Another common curse: the belief that happiness cannot coexist with an imperfect world. For you to be okay with your story, do you require any of the following to occur? A crime-free city. A drug-free America. The day corrupt officials see the error of their ways. The end of suffering on earth. World peace. The day everyone starts using their turn signals, and stops mixing up “there” and “their.”
These are tall orders. Certainly worth aiming at, but never worth waiting for.
Your ship coming in — You get the big promotion. Your business gets bought out by a Fortune 500 corporation. Seth Godin links to your blog. The good ol’ days come back. As with all other forms of machinae, life gets suddenly and inexplicably easy, and the peasants rejoice.
The lottery — The most common ‘ship.’ It’s only a matter of time. Someone always get surprised with a truckload of money. There is no reason to believe it won’t be you. Even if you don’t win the grand prize, surely thirty grand or so is coming your way eventually, it’s only fair. Sometimes I find myself hoping Ed McMahon shows up at my door even if I haven’t entered anything.
Divine intervention — The original deus ex machina. Throughout history, people have prayed to the heavens for bountiful harvests, the disappearance of disease, out-of-the-blue solutions, and Super Bowl rings. Sometimes prayer is a complement to practical efforts, very often it is a substitute.
There are also internal forms of deus ex machina that we sometimes look for. We aren’t always waiting for someone else to rescue us, rather we are waiting for a better version of ourselves to come along and do it. A healthier, more organized version, with more spare time, more money, and no bad habits. Then you can finally get to those goals and dreams.
A Fitter, Happier, Freer You — This particular You never forgets to exercise, never loses its temper, never gets itself in trouble. It boasts an empty inbox, washboard abs, and a stress-free life. Once this You finally shows up, you’ll be able to knock off goals and dreams like mosquitoes. To believe that today’s You can accomplish your goals is clearly foolish; don’t waste your time before Fitter, Happier You arrives.
Motivation — A mythical, precious commodity, rumored to make it easy to begin things. If only you had enough of it, the things you wanted to be done would get done.
I gave up on motivation years ago. As far as I’m concerned, if motivation is anything at all, it’s an undependable luxury. It’s a fleeting set of emotional circumstances that make a certain course of action a no-brainer. With motivation, there is still effort required, but no trace of doubt or struggle. A perceived lack of it is the perfect reason not to act. But in reality it’s still important and valuable for us to do something even while we still face internal resistance.
Habitually successful people appear to have vast reserves of motivation, but it’s more likely that what they have is momentum. They have pushed against their inner resistance firmly and consistently enough that the ball is rolling at a good clip, all on its own. You actually don’t need motivation to do things, it just makes them obvious and easy. This concept deserves its own post.
Think about your own story. What do you want to happen in it? As the protagonist, will you outdo yourself to make things happen, or are you still waiting for the cavalry?
Photo by Army.mil