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Does Your Story Have This Common Weakness?

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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

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Roger - A Content Life May 22, 2009 at 6:58 am


What an excellent, thought-provoking post!

You’ve identified so many ways that we delude ourselves that I don’t know where to begin. I used to be a self-help book junkie until she bought me “Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless”. The book discusses how most self-help books repeat the same stuff from other self-help books. In face, one publisher purposely “repurposes” their material over and over again. Of course, there are a few good self-help books, but most are junk.

Roger – A Content Life’s last blog post..12 Happiness Activities – Part 1

Zariel May 4, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Didn’t know the forum rules allowed such birllniat posts.

Jay Schryer May 22, 2009 at 7:05 am

Guilty on all counts. Actually, I *have* gotten better as I’ve gotten older, but I still have this tendency to look for the answers externally, even when I *know* they can only be found internally. I think that’s one of the main reasons that I started blogging.

I figured out that the only way I was ever going to figure *anything* out was to sit down and write out all of my questions, fears, and frustrations. Then, perhaps, it would all start making some kind of sense.

I think everyone fantasizes about deus ex machina from time to time. The problem is when you stop realizing that it’s just a fantasy, and you start depending on it, or thinking that you are entitled to it. If you’re counting on it, then it doesn’t happen, you’ve caused a lot of trouble for yourself.

Jay Schryer’s last blog post..Under Pressure

Lisis May 22, 2009 at 7:43 am

Darnit! I was counting on Divine Intervention for Motivation to become a Fitter me as my deus ex machina!! You just rained all over my parade!


PS: Fantastic post, btw… I love that you listed them all out (I’m guilty of hoping for most of these at some point or another.)

Lisis’s last blog post..Fellowship Fridays: There Is A Reason For Everything

David May 22, 2009 at 7:47 am

To “there” vs “there” you could add “compliment” vs “complement” (under Divine Intervention)

Great post, even so.

David May 22, 2009 at 8:19 am

@ Roger — For sure, but I can’t deny that there have been some absolute gems in the self-help section. Some of them did provoke a significant change in my outlook, but none of them ‘saved’ me. It’s been more of a slow accumulation of wisdom than anything, and most of it is from my own trial and error.

@ Jay — I’m guilty of every one of them too, at some point. Responsibility for my situation was the missing ingredient in my life, every time I was not especially happy. You can even get hooked on the tiny little high you get from fantasizing. Some people, living under very stressful existences, go completely loopy this way, creating fantasy worlds that they can actually tolerate.

@ Lisis — Haha… You know, that particular combination probably isn’t all that uncommon.

@ David — Oh man! Thank you for pointing that out. Now I can accept the world again :)

Writer Dad May 22, 2009 at 8:48 am


Have you read Outliers, by Malcom Gladwell?

He basically makes the case that there are no overnight successes – all are a result of untold hours leading up to the defining moment. We just can’t see the picture all at once.

Writer Dad’s last blog post..Why LOST is the Best Television Show Ever

David May 22, 2009 at 9:04 am

Hey thanks Sean. No, I haven’t read Outliers yet, but it’s definitely on the list. I don’t think I’ve ever had a single book recommended to me so many times, it must be good.

Positively Present May 22, 2009 at 9:09 am

Such an amazing post! I enjoyed reading every word of it and I think you make some truly excellent points here. We are in control of our lives. We cannot sit around and wait for someone else (or the universe) to make our lives what we want them to be. I think I’m always a bit tempted to buy into the idea that I will someday be discovered. It’s such a prominent idea in our culture and sometimes I find this one hard to let go of. I know that I need to take control of my own destiny, write my own story, but it’s so much easier to sit back and say to myself, “Oh, it will happen.” I loved The Four Agreements, by the way. I know it doesn’t solve anything or create your destiny for you, but it’s a great read!

Positively Present’s last blog post..5 things happy people do

Nadia - Happy Lotus May 22, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Hi David,

I was a literature major in college so I am familiar with deux ex machina and you were definitely creative with applying that to life. My philosophy is this: there is no such thing as luck…you create your own luck. No one likes to hear that but it is the truth. Whenever someone tells me good luck, I never know how to respond. I understand the gesture but am at a loss with a response. Happiness is the same thing too….you have to find it and it won’t come delivered to your door in a nice looking box. We are the creators of our world. :)

Nadia – Happy Lotus’s last blog post..Going Down A One-Way Street

Brenda May 22, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Great post, David. I can’t get enough of your boyhood stories. More of these, please! Also, you had it right the first time with “complement” — something that goes well with something else.

I was a lit major too and either missed or forgot about deus ex machina. Thanks for sharing the image of a god descending from above to resolve all conflict. It’s a sadly funny image! :)

Brenda’s last blog post..This makes me giggle

David May 22, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Dani — Thanks, Dani. I am going to reread the Four Agreements soon. It’s been years, and now I have the companion book. I want to bring a wiser and more organized mind to it. Highly recommended book, for any of you reading this.

Nadia — Yeah “good luck” doesn’t have any meaning to me anymore, other than as a pleasantry. Luck is a way of trying to describe an outcome as being something other than a consequence of some sort. I think all outcomes are consequences.

Brenda — I actually had it “compliment” but I changed it after David pointed it out. I finished this late at night when my mind was shutting down.

You’ll definitely hear more about my boyhood memories if you follow this blog. I may post pictures of nine-year-old David one day.

Lori May 22, 2009 at 8:38 pm

I LOVE this post!

At many times in my life, I’ve hoped for my own Deus ex machina, and really believed it was coming because I felt I had good karma. I thought someday a casting agent would discover me; one day I’d meet my soul mate and like magic I’d feel complete; some time down the line I’d get my “big break” and fulfill my destiny to be great (so many levels of ego-and-fear-based thinking in there, but that’s a different story). Instead of doing the hard work required to propel me toward my dreams, I waited around for something external to save me expelling effort.

I’m realizing now there are no shortcuts, and there is no magical ending where all the loose ends get tied up. The ends will always loose, and maybe sometimes frayed. There is no happily every after. There is just the potential to be happy now. There is no “one day when everything’s perfect.” There’s just a succession of days we fill as we choose. I am my Deus ex machina.

The life-changing moment is an exciting fantasy, I have to say; and sometimes I still indulge it. That’s why I really appreciate the reminder in this post.


Lori’s last blog post..10 Reasons Its Awesome You’re Terrified

David May 22, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Hi Lori,

Wow, sounds like me. That was my curse for so long: I thought I had such good karma that I was entitled to have good things happen to me. I honestly thought success and happiness were “in the mail,” so to speak. I mean, I didn’t steal or cheat, I was smart and talented, I figured the life I wanted would be served to me.

So I waited. And it just didn’t happen. I really did believe I deserved it, and if I wasn’t getting it, it was somebody’s fault. The universe’s fault. That was a real bad time for me, I just couldn’t make sense of life, because I had it all wrong.

Ian | Quantum Learning May 23, 2009 at 3:32 am

David, this is a BRILLIANT post!

Is there anyone who can’t seriously say they’ve been hoping for some deus ex machina event to come to the rescue?

I wonder if it’s part of the challenge of growing up. After all, as a baby, our whole life is one big deus ex machina plot with our mother as the main mysterious creature who comes to the rescue. 100%

So if we want to be fully mature then we need a complete reversal of this plot. Not so easy to achieve completely.

Again, this is a really great post.

Ian | Quantum Learning’s last blog post..Shortest post ever

Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching May 23, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Thanks for this David. What struck me while reading this was how deeply we’re conditioned to believe that peace, happiness and so on can only come from outside us — somebody else has to do something or we can’t be at rest. A.H. Almaas wrote that this begins in the womb, where of course we’re utterly helpless and can’t survive without nourishment from the outside — and that real adulthood means recognizing that we aren’t fetuses anymore and can provide our own peace, happiness, strength and so on.

Nicole May 23, 2009 at 8:11 pm

Doesn’t it just come down to gratitude?

Wouldn’t it be nice if life and getting a chance to live it was enough?

Nicole’s last blog post..You are what you say so

Stephen - Rat Race Trap May 24, 2009 at 4:20 am

David, this was fantastic. Every minute we look to external forces to deliver something to us, is a minute we wasted not doing something for ourselves. Taking 100% responsibility is the most motivating action one can possibly take. Nothing will motivate you more than accepting you are responsible for you – period.

Stephen – Rat Race Trap’s last blog post..Blow the Lid Off Yourself by Thinking Big

David May 24, 2009 at 11:24 am

Ian — Thank, that’s a great point Ian. A mother is the ultimate deus ex machina for a child. Some adults too I guess.

Chris — I think you’re absolutely right. Kind of like and Ian said. Reaching independence is a long haul.

Nicole — Hi Nicole, welcome to Raptitude. For sure, unwavering gratitude would be enough; we would never feel the need to be rescued if we had that. At this point, my gratitude still wavers sometimes :)

Stephen — I guess the trick is to recognize that feeling of looking to the horizon for the cavalry, so to speak, and take it as a trigger for action of some kind.

Lauren May 24, 2009 at 9:26 pm

Hi David
I was only sitting at my desk last night bemoaning the folly of my deus ex machina, though I think I was labelling it as something far more personally critical. I am guilty of most that you mentioned and the biggest problem I think is how lousy you can feel when your favoured vehichle of deus ex machina gets caught out by a moment of reality. When you hang on to the ‘if onlys’ the reality gap between them and, er, reality, can slap you in the face every now and then and be quite emotionally debilitating.
They can also be ‘motivating’ or shall we say ‘momentum-encouraging’ (I love that explantion of motivation, btw). I don’t think you can expect to go cold turkey and stop using the vehichles but I think the key is to be aware of them and how they affect you, your outlook on life and your personal goals.

PS – can we add saying ‘extra ordinary’ (ie very dull) instead of ‘extr-oar-dinary’???

Lauren’s last blog post..Next Book

Dot May 26, 2009 at 3:39 pm

Please, God, save me from myself. Send me a deus ex machina. :-) I like what you said about motivation versus momentum. I’ve been waiting for motivation to diet, but just setting up the homemade “Deal-A-Meal” system I used last time has given me momentum, even though I still don’t have much motivation.

“Drama and bombast are cool to look at, but ultimately unfulfilling by themselves. As author Jon Franklin said: ‘All stories are about people.’” Finally, a useful explanation for why I don’t like action movies!

Dot’s last blog post..Live and Learn

Kim June 7, 2009 at 6:05 am
Anthony Morris December 3, 2009 at 8:09 pm

Once again David you have me feeling like you’re discussing my life, or what I’m going through, or have been through. You’ve really opened my eyes in more than one way and each article I read keeps me feeling more and more hopeful. I’m too young to be this depressed, this unhappy, and you’re helping me.


David December 4, 2009 at 2:40 am

Good to hear Anthony, this one is one of my favorite articles. It is a real compliment to a blogger to hear someone say they can identify with a post on a personal level.

Rach May 25, 2010 at 9:15 am

Great article and brutally honest. The reality, even if you believe that all of these things happen on occasion, which I do, is that they are not likely to happen to me … or you. Life – and God, I believe – helps those who “help themselves.” Self-responsibility is a beautiful concept, if one of the most difficult to implement. Thanks for the post!!

David May 27, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Thanks Rach. This is one of my favorite posts, because I catch myself doing it all the time.

Yankeedoodle February 2, 2011 at 5:36 am

As Tom Petty says, “The waiting is the hardest part”. I’d like to add; especially if what you are waiting for never comes.

Nails April 17, 2012 at 7:35 am


I do this all the time, and it really sucks lol. I used to call all of it “rationalizing”, I would rationalize every situation in my head and literally convince myself that something good or fortunate would happen to me.

Nicole December 16, 2012 at 4:29 pm

I loved what you wrote about giving up on motivation.
Practice, practice, practice. That’s all that counts. Whether it’s being more compassionate, taking time for yoga, meditation, or breath work; or, being the change you want to see. Waiting for motivation is like Waiting For Godot.

BTW, I also adore the name Raptitude.

Max November 3, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Hey David! I know it’s been a while, but I recently remembered something you say in this article, specifically about motivation: “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.” A lack of consistency – discipline – is easily my biggest roadblock in living my life and making music. I’m easy to light up and work for hours on something, but on day 4 of doing the same thing, it’s easy to just take a break. And then it’s gone. Any ideas on staying consistent or disciplined continuing to work despite a complete lack of motivation? Thanks!

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