Famously, The Sopranos ended in a way that infuriated a lot of fans. At an apparently critical moment in the story, the audio and video cut to black. After ten seconds, the credits roll.
The cut gives the viewer the sensation of a dead end. All the momentum and meaning of the story run straight into a wall, beyond which nothing can be known, creating a helpless feeling in the viewer. What happens next? Where did they go? [Despite the abundant criticism, this ending is actually brilliant, and is explained fully here.]
The opposite of this—a cut-from–black beginning—happens in every series and every movie. It has to, because the story has to begin somewhere.
At the outset, you know nothing. All you can do is watch what emerges from the darkness, and start to figure out where you are. In Memento, the first thing you see is a hand holding a Polaroid photo, shaking it to make the image appear. In The Godfather, the voice of a man with an Italian accent appears before his face does. “I believe in America,” he begins.
The standard movie opening is the opposite of a Sopranos-style dead end, and it gives us the opposite range of feelings. Instead of the sensation of running out of road, we get feelings of abundance and possibility. One of my favorite feelings in the world is settling into a couch, or a cinema seat, watching the opening credits of a movie. It’s like a newly-opened box of chocolates.
With a movie, you always have to put together the story from a standing start, because you’re already in the middle of the characters’ lives. You can’t actually see what happened before the first image appears, but you can piece it together through exposition. The character is shown in a divorce lawyer’s office. Another character asks him if his mother is still sick. His mantle is adorned with martial arts trophies. Everything you know about the character’s past is learned in the present.
Stories begin in the middle, and the middle is always now
Real life is like this too. This feeling of “beginning in the middle” happens, to some degree, every time you wake up. One moment you’re in a dream world, where nothing is real, and the next moment you discover you’re lying in a bed. Sometimes your dream was so vivid and disorienting that you must take the first few seconds of your day to put together your own backstory: Oh yes, it’s Tuesday. I work in an accounting office. I am in a strained relationship. Friday is a holiday. There is leftover lasagna in the fridge.
Back in 2009, in this blog’s second-ever article, I struggled to relate a bizarre experience that left me infatuated with this cutting-from-black feeling. I was sitting at dinner with my mother and grandmother, and had the sensation that my life had just begun at that moment, as a 28-year-old man, with a home, a job, friends, relatives, and a backstory. I said it felt like “the universe had just rebooted, and that that dinner scene was where I found myself when the picture returned to the screen.”
It was fascinating, but not disorienting—I knew how to speak and act, and I could remember what had apparently happened earlier in the day, and earlier in life. But life itself seemed like a brand new proposition, as if I’d been waiting on deck for a thousand years, and I finally found myself at the plate. There was so much detail to be noticed, so much possibility to be explored. The world felt like a playground, and to be alive in it felt like an unexpected gift.
You can get a hint of this “playground effect” by imagining that the moment you’re in now is the beginning of your life. The curtain has just come up on this particular scene, whatever it is, after having been down for a thousand or a million years. You can recall your backstory at will, but just like in a movie, nothing really happened before this opening shot. This is the beginning, not the middle, and you’re free to act for the first time.
Conceivably, life could actually be like that. We presume that our lives start the moment we exit the birth canal. But they don’t really. You didn’t discover your own volition, your own personhood, until quite some time after that, at toddler-age, or possibly later, and none of us remember it anyway. In that sense, we kind of “fade in”, somewhere in the middle.
So wherever the start was, we missed it. Because we were never aware of life beginning, it was never impressed on us that something seriously amazing did indeed begin, and is still going. It’s possible you never quite realized you’re alive, or at least how alive you are, in terms of how different being alive is from not being alive. It’s like being born with the most ridiculous entitlement complex possible, and being totally oblivious to it. Snapping out of that kind of fugue—like I did involuntarily that time at the dinner table—could be considered the beginning of your life.
In his books and speeches, Douglas Harding emphasized the point that we might live and die without ever noticing the basic yet unbelievable fact that we are “occurring”. In one talk, he points to the audience in a gesture of mock-scolding, and says, “You know, you needn’t have happened. You needn’t have happened, but you did happen.”
…and we’re live, folks
When you can look at any moment as though it’s the first moment, if you can really see your surroundings as the opening frame in a story, the world gains a certain playfulness. Suddenly your problems seem more interesting than annoying, the way another person’s problems always seem easier to solve than your own. It’s almost impossible to be impatient with others, because it’s fascinating that they’re even there. You still care about outcomes, but it’s far easier to relax around the possibilities. Any uptightness about making things go a certain way seems a bit silly, because it already seems unlikely that anything is even happening, and that you’re at the helm.
In Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury’s brilliant novel about the indescribable feelings of Summer, a boy is play-wrestling in the grass when he discovers something profound: he is alive. He had always “known” this, but only in the same dull way we know—without feeling it—that we’re standing on a planet floating in space. This time he feels his aliveness with full force, in his temples, his pores, the twin heartbeats in his wrists. He shouts it aloud, several times, and his father and brother don’t get it.
Another literary genius, David Foster Wallace, might be best known for his “This is Water” commencement address. The talk opens with a joke that encapsulates its whole theme. Two young fish are swimming along. An older fish, headed the other way, asks them, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two of them continue on in silence until one of them asks the other, “What the hell is water?”
The central principle in the speech is subtle and profound: we can’t know something’s value until we can conceive of its absence, and there’s nothing easier to overlook than the experience of being alive, precisely because it’s everywhere. Because of the way our anatomy works, we don’t get to experience what non-living is like, so we can easily live a whole life without ever knowing what we’ve got. But we can get hints at what we’ve gained, and will one day lose, by imagining what it’s like to cross the boundary at life’s beginning.
In other words, being alive seems like no big deal, until you can imagine, for a moment, what it means not to be alive: no experience, and no story. When you can see the present moment as though the camera has just started rolling, you get a hint of just how rich it is, and has always been.