Heroes Of Heroes

What do we do when we at last come together [at Christmas]? We watch TV.  To some, this sounds awfully tragic. Shouldn’t we be gathered around the piano instead of the Wii? … All that Christmas idealism is sustained by television. Everything we know about how Christmas should appear and feel, we learned from watching Christmas happen on TV to people who don’t exist. Have a look at the pretty, pretty trees in all those living rooms and in all those diamond necklace ads and in Hallmark specials. What’s the one thing missing from these people’s homes? Correct: No TVs are on. The people we see on television at Christmastime have chosen to put their tree up in a formal living room, safely away from the television. (more)

It may be reasonable to be skeptical of stories, preferring to live a real life with real friends, problems, careers, etc. And it may be reasonable to enjoy stories, to embrace the ideals they embody, and to find life-lessons in their exaggerations. But if you approve of your habit of spending time and energy admiring story heroes and exemplars, then consistency suggests that your heroes and exemplars should also devote their own time and energy to stories, admiring their own heroes. If your heroes don’t waste much time with stories, why should you?

So make up your mind. If you think it good for your family to spend holidays together watching inspirational stories, well then the families in those stories should also think it good to spend holidays together being inspired by other stories.  And if you can’t really admire heroes who much time watching TV, well if your want to admire yourself maybe you shouldn’t spend much time watching TV either.

Here’s a related post by Katja.

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  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    1. Heroes aren’t shown doing many things in stories. Should I spend less time going to the bathroom or eating food because my heroes seem to rarely do these things in stories? Presumably heroes if they were real people would spend lots of time doing boring everyday things that don’t go into their story, but are worth doing anyway.

    2. People who read about heroes should read about heroes reading about heroes reading about heroes reading about heroes ad infinitum.

    3. I recall Raymond Smullyan writing that he liked the idea of gardening, but didn’t actually like gardening. Why not like the idea of an idealized Christmas without having to bother with the actual thing?

  • black sheep

    I watch TV with my family to avoid awkward conversations. Pretending to enjoy inspirational holiday stories in which no one watches TV means I don’t have to talk about what I’m really thinking; a real holiday without TV would involve too much bickering, but watching holiday specials means we can all fake it and pretend that isn’t true. My fellow misfits and I fulfill a social obligation, the people who want the big heartwarming happy family Christmas get a convincing illusion of one, everyone leaves in one piece.

    (I don’t have TV at home; I am more than competent at sabotaging my own best interests without the additional opportunity for time-suck.)

  • Constant

    Stories within stories exist, for example the Decameron and the Arabian Nights. But the inference from what stories we enjoy, to what we should do, is strained anyway. We should not strive for a life like a good story, nor would life make a good story – not without a lot of editing or embellishing. Good stories throw their characters into situations which we real humans are well advised to avoid. Take one of the great novels – Madame Bovary. Or take another – Anna Karenina. We are probably ill advised to strive to share the fate of these characters. Or pick anything you like. Many novels take place during “interesting times” such as war, but it is a famliar curse to tell someone, “may you live in interesting times”. Shakespeare’s plays: Othello. King Lear. Macbeth. Hamlet. Or any of the comedies.

    A lot of great fiction involves people getting into bad situations, and either getting themselves back out, or else perishing from their misfortunes (or foolishness). Pick anything on TV. The popular dramatic genres are legal, crime (e.g. mystery or police), and medical. But going to court is something we should all avoid, as is commiting any crimes (or falling victim to one). And similarly, going to the hospital absolutely sucks for the patient.

    Christmas stories often involve terrible things happening to families, but then them pulling out of it by means of love. The misfortune creates the drama, which creates an opportunity for an emotional resolution.

  • wophugus

    Inspirational stories, both because they are shorter than a lifetime and because they seek to inspire, should have different content than a life inspired by them.

    In other words, if I want to instill martial valor in someone, i would show them a story that inspires martial valor. Since I neither want them to inspire martial valor (I just want them to have it) or ignore all other facets of human life, and, for that matter, since they may simply not face the same circumstances as the people in the story, it makes perfect sense that they should live their life differently than the hero. If the hero in the story died charging a pillbox on Christmas, that does not mean the peacetime viewer is a hypocrite for not seeking out a pillbox, charging it, and dying every Christmas.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    You can get amazingly positive responses from having your protagonists think about fictional heroes they’ve read about and compare those fictions to their current situation, because, to a certain sort of reader, that makes the protagonist far more sympathetic.

  • Curt Adams

    Stories are very contrived and not particularly like real life. There’s a lot of things in real life that rarely make it into stories, from boredom to excretory functions, and some things that get far more time than they do in real life, notably early-stage romance. Learning the things we should do in detail is not the reason we like stories. Kids in California start learning in 2nd grade that how-to texts are different from entertaining texts and how to distinguish them.

  • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

    Mike – Considering the number of people that are overweight, eating less, whatever the proximate cause, strikes me as an often good idea. I have noticed that a common criticism in Amazon reviews of Modesitt’s novels is that his heroes like good food, and he occasionally describes their meals.

    Stories can be considered “models” of real life (at best) and like all models they need to leave things out. You can tell a lot about a writer (or modeler) by what they choose to leave out. Note though that this is indirect, it tells you what the writer thinks makes a good story, not what is inherently important. It is more direct for other types of, supposedly non-fictional, modeling.

  • http://www.yohami.com yohami

    “tv is bad, our tv heroes dont watch it” is a lol argument.

  • Yvain

    I was going to switch to only watching Christmas TV specials where the heroes were themselves watching TV, but then I realized that unless the heroes were watching TV in which heroes were watching TV, the heroes would be falling for exactly the same hypocrisy you’re warning against, and I wouldn’t want my heroes to be hypocritical. I think the really rational thing to do would be to only watch TV about people watching TV about people watching TV and so on. If it’s not an infinite regress, it’s not good enough for me and my family!

  • GaryP

    Watch (or read) enough stories to relax and keep your mind from falling into the rut of only thinking about mundane things. Stories depict (or should) how idealized people deal with situations to entertain (and enlighten) us. They can bring pleasure, make us think about the big questions (death, heroism, temptation, etc.) in life (that we don’t deal with everyday but that we ought to think about once in awhile.)

    Stories, from whatever source, can be a nice place to visit but you can’t live there.

    Interacting with friends and family is where you get the real joy in life. Those of you that feel like watching TV lets you avoid talking with your loved ones have my sympathy (not that a short break to share a good movie with others isn’t pleasant also).

    I think the real issue with broadcast TV (which is why I don’t have it in my home, as apposed to movies I pick) is that it is impossible to avoid inadvertently seeing people degrade themselves so they can get on TV. Whether they live such despicable and pitiful lives when the cameras aren’t watching I don’t know (I hope not) but that our society enjoys (?–or allows our media decision makers to convince them that they should enjoy) watching freak shows is my issue with broadcast television. Watching such drivel is not going to do anything for you but make you want to vomit (I hope) so avoid it and try to enjoy the people in your life during the holidays.

    If you don’t can’t enjoy your family and friends with only short entertainment breaks, make new friends and keep your visits to family short. If you can’t find anyone you enjoy, you need counseling, watching TV isn’t going to help you with your real problem.

  • Sister Y

    I think most families are less concerned with emulating heroes and more concerned with getting through unpleasant time and taking up cognitive surplus.

    TV doesn’t show up in stories because we realize that this is its role, and we don’t like to think about it.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    Wait, reality check — is the point of watching TV stories to be inspired by people worth emulating? No, so we’re fine.

    Much of storytelling is crafted “to delight and instruct” — not to inspire (that is usually called propaganda).

    And anyway, those that do try to evoke a magical, inspirational response *do* have characters who are fascinated by stories. Just from browsing some DVDs nearby: Labyrinth, The Neverending Story, The Lorax, Stand By Me, The Sandlot, Gremlins, The Princess Bride, Jesus of Nazareth, and just about any horror movie has several storytelling episodes within the action.

    That the characters don’t get their stories from other sources than TV is irrelevant, just like if a scene of baptism is supposed to inspire, it doesn’t matter that the water comes from some natural pool or stream instead of piped in using modern plumbing technology. The emphasis is on storytelling (or baptism), not the particular method of transmission.

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    “That the characters get their stories…”

  • Narcissus

    Basically your saying that people should admire themselves and not their heroes. What’s the point of having heroes if you are just going to try to emulate them. A hero is not the same thing as a role model.

    Should I not like Superman because I can’t be more like him?

  • Humbert Humbert

    Replace “watching tv” with “watching porn” and read everything again.

  • Douglas Knight

    There is a famous story about a guy who reads about heroes: Don Quixote.

    Were older stories more in line with this? The Aeneid doesn’t talk about stories, but Aeneas’s struggle to find a home for his “household gods” does sound like ancestor worship to me. On the other hand, Achilles tells him that the ancestor worship doesn’t make up for being dead.

  • Doktor

    Although the financial hardship is the main culprit, I don’t keep a tv in my current household. Having no tv to default to, and actually making the attempt to build connections with my co-inhabitants, had been enriching to my relationships with people. Not just with the people I live with, but the experiences lends itself to outside by helping me be more attune to what people need – instead of shirking away every time there’s ‘awkward silence’, I rise up to meet that challenge.

    Having that said, watching movies/tv series during holidays with families and friends are experience in itself. Sometimes sharing an awesome movie together, if memorable enough, gives that common platform to stand on and look back on later days. If used right, it is a legit, powerful relationship builder.

  • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com/ Robert Wiblin

    Maybe we admire heroes who embrace stories, just not via TV.

  • http://www.pursuitoftruthiness.wordpress.com James

    Tolkien’s heroes are always reading and singing about earlier heroes.
    Mystery Science Theater 3000 features characters who watch movies and make witty responses, something the MST3k audience would like to emulate.