is like a sitcom.
One day in 2020, in South Bend,* I backed into a telephone pole.
No one was there to see it. It was just me, the telephone pole, and a largely empty parking lot that was making me feel absurd about having taken the spot right next to the telephone pole.
I got out of my car, inspected the damage (which wasn’t too bad), got back into the car, and drove away. I was frustrated with myself and annoyed with life in general and telephone poles in particular. But no one was there, and for that reason the event reminded me of the old riddle: if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a person backs into a telephone pole and no one is there to see it, is it really embarrassing?
I called my dad and complained; I mentioned it as a funny anecdote that evening. But I wished I could have brought it up in one particular forum, at the time on hold because of COVID-19: the weekly dinner that my friends and I hold on Friday nights.
At that dinner, we share our “notable accomplishments” and “notable failures” of the week. Notable accomplishments are fairly self-explanatory, but notable failures are what we end on, because they’re an experience of shared humanity. Notable failures can include everything from a marital spat to a refrigerator blowout (in fact, there’s a kazoo-driven background song dedicated to “failures of major appliances.”) People have opened up about deep failures that struck deep at their consciences, and complained about pest infestations and creaky old houses. We laugh a lot; occasionally, someone cries.
While there is plenty of room in this time of the evening for answering silence (I’ve learned from this experience that what someone really wants when they’re acknowledging a failure is almost never “oh, that’s not a big deal”) another beautiful thing about this part of the night is the way people tend to bring up their own stories of failures in response to yours—and sometimes they’re worse, which is very reassuring. The telephone pole episode was a missed opportunity—it would have fit so well into the part of the evening dedicated to notable failures, and been met with many answering stories of vehicle woes.
Until not too long ago, people lived their lives with a coherent group of other people. If I had backed my buggy into the well in 1856 or run my horse into a tree in 1472 or slipped my chariot into a ditch in 400, I would have been the talk of the town, the fief, or the polis. Everyone would have gotten in a good chuckle over their tea, mead, or bowl of wine.
But in 2020, without my dinner party friends, there was no one there to laugh at me. An embarrassing moment isn’t so embarrassing without an audience, which is, by and large, a pretty nice thing. But the principle extends further: a funny moment isn’t as funny without people to laugh with. A dramatic moment isn’t as dramatic. An important moment isn’t as important.
Everyone still needs to laugh and cry, though, so we’ve outsourced that to Netflix.
Netflix provides us with the show without making us the costars. We tend to think that what makes TV shows seem more interesting than “real life” is the crazy events that happen: Ryan starts a fire in the office, the Spanish flu strikes Downton Abbey, a guy falls out of the sky in the middle of some sort of proto-hobbit town.
But the best shows don’t hinge upon the events themselves. What makes the events in a show interesting is their significance, and they take on that significance because of their context: a consistent group of people to witness them and to take part. Jokes are funnier given the context of characters’ various personalities and histories, and they get funnier when they resurface again and again in unexpected contexts. Conversely, show writers often discover the hard way that the explosion of the volcano and the attack of the giant centipede aren’t compelling if an audience hasn’t learned to care for the characters first.
The things that Dwight and Jim do are funny because Dwight and Jim do them. The things that happen to Lady Mary or Daenerys Targaryen or Seinfeld are funny or interesting or dramatic or tragic both because we know the characters—because we’ve consistently had them in our lives for so long that it’s like they are in our friend circles—and because their “actual” worlds are so small and tightly-knit that what happens in their lives is part of an interlocking narrative with the lives of others.
When we watch a TV show, we are being brought up to speed with a coherent group of friends (and enemies) that goes through life together. With the characters, we laugh looking back at old jokes and remember hard times that brought them together. Characters rarely make one-off appearances—even characters who have only come up once tend to come up again, or if they do depart never to be seen again they are still incorporated into a history that the other characters share.
South Bend is the same way. I could name the cameos that have become recurring characters (shout-out to Danny from the underfunded Season 1 of South Bend Summer, who has a bold and daring Substack called Myshkin’s Revenge). There are singular events or people that we all remember. There are big events that everybody goes to every year, or every season, or every week. (There’s a whole parallel show set in South Bend called Notre Dame Football.)
When you’re watching a Netflix series, you’re watching a coherent community show up, week after week, episode after episode. It’s comforting because it’s what people lack in their own lives. But watching a story from afar is a shabby substitute for living out your own.
Studies abound on the loneliness of modern American existence, where people tend to move away from their nuclear families to pursue an individual “American dream,” where millennials are marrying later and where men have no friends. There may be some countries in modern times where community still thrives, but in America, loneliness dominates, especially after the pandemic. Netflix can soothe that loneliness for a while, but it will return in full force after our imaginary friends fade from the screen.
It’s not simply that people lack friends in modern America—though they do—it’s that they lack consistency, a certain cast of characters to spend a life with. That cast of characters makes life funny, tragic, interesting—real.
A friend of mine recently started a story at Friday night dinner by saying, “You may remember the cricket situation from last week.” Community is having people there to ask you what happened with the cricket situation from last week, having people ready to pitch in with food when your stove breaks and rides when your car breaks.
When people remember to ask about how your big presentation went or you can tell them for the third week in a row about your travails in fixing your bike, your life takes on a certain kind of narrative structure, and your relationships deepen and grow. Even people you don’t really like have a certain dearness to them when they’ve been showing up to your life, consistently, for years and years, and one time they helped you paint your bedroom.
It’s tempting to attribute these communal qualities to small towns, but I’ve lived in towns smaller than South Bend with less of a communal life, and I’ve also seen people muddle through by building small, tight-knit circles in much larger cities. What South Bend is an example of here is just a group of people that in some form keeps showing up, forms the cast of characters in your particular life.
The psychologistically-inclined Gen Z has dubbed a sense of being the protagonist of your life “main character syndrome.” People who suffer from this syndrome, according to TikTok, are self-obsessed and “[believe] the people around them live to support them.” Such characteristics are annoying in real life, of course, but it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: on some level, every one of us is living out a story, with a beginning and an end. People around you don’t live to support you—but, in a best-case scenario, they do support you.
When you are part of a small community, everyone is, on some level, a main character. People are supporting characters for you even as they are starring in their own stories, and you are also a supporting character for them. Maybe that’s not a problem at all. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it in After Virtue, “In my drama, perhaps, I am Hamlet or Iago or at least the swineherd who may yet become a prince, but to you I am only A Gentleman or at best Second Murderer, while you are my Polonius or my Gravedigger, but your own hero.”
People complain about the “performative” nature of modern society, but in certain ways society has never been less performative—we have lost the chance to perform in real life for an attentive and engaged audience. Instead, we standardize ourselves in hopes that we will broadly appeal to a huge class of disengaged social media users, trying to become a main character among billions of others.
At that point, in an attempt to become an influencer or a TikTok star, it is perhaps easy to fall into a “main character syndrome” of self-centeredness and image obsession. But what someone is looking for in such an effort is the kind of attention I wanted when I backed my car into a telephone pole—for someone to see your life, to relate to you, to look you in the eye and say they see you, even (especially) when you’ve made a stupid mistake.
That kind of attention is healthy, necessary even, and people are starving for it. Without people who stay in your life and show up again and again even when the job is lost or the baby is born or the divorce is finalized or the business takes off, the things that happen in our lives become isolated instances—X happened, I felt Y—rather than coherent narratives—X happened, so Y happened, so Z happened. Our whole lives sink away in the rearview mirror, an endless series of varied impressions with no sense of purpose or directionality, with no reason to remember anything.
Without anyone there to ask you about the crickets, your life becomes the tree that fell in the forest with no one to hear it. But with an audience, it becomes a comedy.
Come back next Friday: to find out why Substack is like the Sistine Chapel.
In honor of: Marcus Mumford’s new “self-titled” album, here’s a podcast series investigating whether the song “Wind of Change” was written by the CIA.
Hello from: a very tiny turtle I found on a walk the other day. (Not hello from my house, since you’re not supposed to take tiny turtles home, unfortunately.)