This is your brain on fiction

My three and a half year old daughter is obsessed with astronauts.  She spent more than two hours yesterday playing with her toy astronauts:  having the moon rover wheel over to the lunar lander for some banana milkshakes whipped up by Ham the space chimp, giving them a lecture about how to fix a satellite, trekking to see the “space cat” who had camped out in her sofa cushion space ship, and even putting on a ballet recital for them.

She has already seen one astronaut movie in the theaters – the IMAX movie “Hubble” – and she was very excited to be going to the planetarium for their full dome showing of a short film simply titled, “Astronaut.

I was a bit skeptical – she had clung to me like a baby orangutan through most of the showing of “Heart of the Sun” yesterday (which we ended up seeing because I had gotten us to the theater a bit too late for “Astronaut”), complaining that it was too loud.

I was delighted with the opening sequence, in which we were swept through an astronaut’s brain, bloodstream, heart, and lungs.  And while I was nervous that the lack of a frame of reference and the simulated speed would be unsettling for her, she seemed fine, leaning comfortably back into me and tracking the action with rapt attention.  Then, as they pulled back to a picture of the astronaut coming out of an airlock into the cargo bay for a space walk, her awestruck voice was heard through the quiet theater, “Look, Mommy, the space shuttle!”

Things were going along swimmingly, even as they spun us more and more rapidly around the human centrifuge trainer.  What set her off was not the speed, or the darkness, or the sound, or the loss of her usual frames of reference:  what finally led to her turning into a quivering mass of frantically whispered, “I want to go RIGHT NOW!” was the abuse heaped on “Chad” – an goofy animated test subject demonstrating all of the things that could happen to an astronaut if they were not wearing their spacesuit outside of the craft.  The fact that there were about 8 identical Chads was a bit cognitively disturbing to myself.  But the abuse didn’t faze me – I knew that he was just a drawing, and have become a bit desensitized to cartoon violence, thanks to Chuck Jones, et. al.  For my daughter, however, Chad really was unable to breathe, or floating away untethered, or crushed by space debris.  When Chad was finally turned to a solid block of ice, she had had enough.

Later, she wanted to know why the astronaut kept getting hurt.  I tried to explain that he was not really real, but just a drawing – that he couldn’t really be hurt – just like her doll isn’t really hurt when she is bonked into the window blinds.  (Somehow, the comedic value of that particular action is limitless these days.)  But that was not good enough for my daughter – she wanted to know why they would want to show us a drawing getting hurt over and over.  “So we’ll know why spacesuits are important,” I began to say, “So that we know why astronauts must always wear their suits outside of the spaceship.”

“But if they always do, why do we need to know what will happen if they don’t?” she replied.

I still see the value of the lesson, but clearly the movie was not the right match for her at this developmental stage – we are going to have to wait until she really understands the difference between fact and fiction, between what is real and what is not.

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder to what extent any of us ever reach this stage.  Us “grown-ups” keep watching serial dramas and comedies because we become invested in the characters. Certain scenes and images haunt us even though we know that they were made up – even though we went to see the movie simply to be entertained.  (Which reminds me, I would advise you to avoid The Pillow Book, unless you find yourself in need of a memory that makes you physically nauseated every time it comes to mind.  Actually, I might extend that warning to all Peter Greenaway films in general.)

Fiction calls for us to suspend our disbelief, something that humans are frighteningly good at (some of us more than others!) But when we do that, when we allow action and character to unfold “as if” it were true, then we are also (often unwittingly) absorbing the author’s world view.  For instance, in order to get a few pages into The Time Traveler’s Wife, we have to grant the device of time travel.  But do we not similarly and unthinkingly grant the author’s views about romantic love, and if so, why?  Who certified Audrey Niffenegger as a love expert?

Authors and directors are not reporting something that did happen – they are describing what is possible in their own mind.  And our own minds are a great deal more limited than the universe.  To quote one man of great imagination, “There are more things in Heaven and on Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.”

So – it is not just my daughter who is susceptible to getting drawn into a fictional world.  I myself am trying to discipline myself not to suspend my belief in a loved and redeemed creation when I read or watch or listen to the creations of human creatures these days.  Instead, I am learning to observe with a bit of skepticism – to ask – does this diverge from the world I know, and how?

Covenant prayer group, meet roving prayer group

Scary or exciting?

Matt Stone reports on locational social networking, and muses on its potential for the church and missions in his blog, Glocal Chrisitianity:

“I’ve got my eye on the subculture potential. Imagine the scenes that you’re in. What if, as you’re walking down the street, your smart phone alerted you to the fact that that coffee shop / book store over there was becoming real popular with your friends or interest group of choise, and that some mates were hanging out there right now?”

I am excited thinking about the spontaneous prayer meeting potential – I have long been a fan of serendipitously meeting a friend for a quick chat and a prayer, but the idea that serendipity could be given a bit of an edge over near miss by an app notifying me that I was walking right by a cafe where a friend of mine was sitting?

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8, NRSV)

I’m sorry, part 2

I’m sorry.  I misled you.  Things are seldom as straightforward as they seem, and upon reflection, I oversimplified a much more complicated story.

In a previous post, I led with a story that was totally accurate, except for one thing – it was told without the context of “what happened next.”  What happened next was not so clear cut – in fact, what happened next might undercut the black and white “just take responsibility” angle that I pursued in that post.

So, ironically, I am in the position of admitting that I made a mistake (hasty and unreflective blogging) when posting about the importance of admitting your mistakes.

So – here is, as Paul Harvey would have it, the rest of the story:

When the day finally came for me to go to court, it was snowing.  And while admittedly my flannel sheets did not make it easier for my young self to roll out of bed, the main issue was that I was driving to the Fairfax County courthouse from Richmond, which residents of Virginia can tell you involves driving on Interstate 95.  In my case, driving towards D.C. during the rush hour, now in the snow.  Given the weather, the time I had allowed was totally inadequate, even if I had not gotten lost looking for the courthouse parking deck, and then lost again looking for the appropriate courtroom in the courthouse.  All in the pre-cell phone days.

Needless to say, I was late.  I had called my father to let him know when I was leaving Richmond, and he headed straight to the courthouse to meet me there.  And so I was not in court to plead guilty, as had been my intent.

Apparently, in traffic court, they ask everyone to plea first, and then after they have sorted through everyone, sentencing the “guilty” along the way, they get around to the business of trying the “not guilty.”  So when the judge called my name, my father stood up, and explained that I was on my way, in the snow, from Richmond (in his best “please be merciful on my eldest daughter” tone.)  And the judge said, “That’s fine.  Let’s assume she’d plead not guilty, and that she’ll be here by the time we have gotten to the hearings.”

I got to the courtroom and found my father.  I was in a panic, because the judge was calling on someone with the last name “R_____,” and my last name began with “C.”  Dad assured me that it was alright, and the judge would talk to me later.

“Dad!” I said, “I was going to plead guilty!”

“Hush!” he said. “You’re lucky you are not in trouble for being late to court!”

Then the time came for my hearing.  I was asked to stand.  The judge called the police officer, and asked him if he had actually seen the accident take place.  He said that he had not.  The judge asked if there was anyone present that had been at the scene.  There was not.  It was then that I spoke up, and said to the judge, “Excuse me, your honor, but may I say something?” The judge replied, “It would be better for you if you didn’t!”  And then after a pause to see if I would in fact ignore his advice, he declared, “We find the defendant not guilty. You are free to go.”

Walking away from the courthouse, I did not feel “not guilty.” I felt defeated.  I confessed to Dad that I felt dishonest – I should have taken responsibility, but my general fear of authority figures kicked in, and I had been unable to keep talking after his admonishment for speaking up in the first place.  Dad’s take was that it would have been no use – I would have gotten some points on my license and paid some small fine, his insurance payments would have gone up even more – but what would be the benefit of it?

The benefit, I guess, would have been a delay in my initiation into the realm of moral ambiguity – I wasn’t equipped to know what to make of my inability, in the end, to take responsibility.  And I still am not, in some ways – I still have to tell the story in such a way as to emphasize – “If I had been there earlier, I would have plead guilty!”  But I was not, and I did not – instead, I allowed a presumed not guilty plea to become a not guilty verdict.

Which all leads to the question – if I know that God has forgiven me, why do I have such a hard time forgiving myself?  So much so that I have separated this story in my mind into two separate, unrelated stories – a story about my freshness and integrity startling a young, but already jaded police officer, and a story that really no one wants to hear, because… it’s complicated.  My shame over this incident is sufficient that I have held it apart from God, refusing to let this memory be redeemed.

What if, instead, I were to imagine God knowing exactly what I would do in that situation? What if I needed to learn what I would do in that situation?  And what if that moment were to be a moment of grace, of understanding how easy it is not to take responsibility, and finding love and forgiveness for those who cannot, or do not take responsibility, even before they can find forgiveness for themselves, even before they know they need forgiveness?  What if – what if this moment of moral failure could become a moment of redemption and reconciliation?  And what if, finally, I were brought to the realization that grace is all about learning to accept being given a not guilty verdict when you know that you deserved to be found guilty?