Heroes and Villains
by Jennifer Paros
The least amount of judging we can do, the better off we are.
~ Michael J. Fox
The other day, I rewatched one of my father’s favorite movies – the 1965 film A Thousand Clowns. It stars Jason Robards as nonconformist, anti-establishment television writer, Murray Burns, who has recently quit his job at The Chuckles the Chipmunk Show. Murray lives with his 12-year-old nephew, Nick, whose mother left him years earlier. When the Child Welfare Bureau investigates, Murray faces losing Nick if he doesn’t get a job and demonstrate a more stable household.
Though the script makes Murray likeable, funny, and supposedly freer than most (being a rebel against the status quo), it also confronts his weakness. When an uptight social worker, Albert Amundson, warns of what might happen to Nick, Murray mocks him, and Albert lays bare the problem with our protagonist’s worldview:
You’re so sure of your sight – your villains and heroes are all so terribly
clear to you – and I am obviously one of the villains.
Soon Albert is rendered, not as a caricature, but as a person with some self-awareness, good intentions, and his own emotional challenges. We learn too much for Albert to remain an unadulterated villain, which makes the story better. The same goes for Murray’s former employer, the neurotic Leo Herman (aka Chuckles the Chipmunk). In a scene in which he alternates between obnoxious, offensive, insecure and tortured, Leo is so fully depicted we are unable to see him solely as a bad or good guy. Though Murray slices the world into opposing camps, up close there is complexity and breadth to each person’s makeup, and those Murray’s divisions cease to be real.
In life, we are given the chance to have an experience that is richer than the puny business of judging something as right or wrong. We have the opportunity for greater vision, greater perspective, greater capacity for understanding the mix we all are and the beauty of that mix.
When I was in third grade, I went to a new school. The year before I’d been in an experimental classroom called The Learning Center where three young, friendly, progressive-minded women teachers made learning wonderful. My new school was more “old school”; my teachers were older ladies who requested that we keep our hands folded on our desks when we weren’t working. I quickly came to see the worn out, big building with the cement playground and chain link fence, as a villain – and me, a bit of a victim.
Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
~ Marcus Aurelius
I had a math teacher, of whom I was frightened, who set a rule that we weren’t to go to the bathroom during class (that’s how I heard it). One day, I needed to go. Too frightened to raise my hand, I gradually lost the capacity to hold it and soon a puddle formed beneath my desk. Amidst the children’s laughter, the teacher called me to the front to collect paper towel and clean up what I’d done. I wore knit pants that day – difficult to move in once weighted as they were. I dragged my saturated self up the aisle and back again, mopped up, and finally left the room.
Years later, in high school, while waiting in line to buy a hot lunch, the girl in front of me opened her wallet and there, to my momentary distress, was a picture of my third grade math teacher. I asked about it and she shared how much her favorite teacher meant to her – a hero of sorts in her life. At eight years old, it had never been my conscious intention to divide the world into villains and heroes; I just sort of fell into doing it. As a high schooler, I could have a different experience by tapping into a different perspective.
Murray creates a dichotomy: a world of work-a-day drudgery and a world of freedom. But chronic rebellion is not freedom, because all our energies are consumed pushing against that which we don’t want, which means we’re still bound by those things. When we stop fighting and start putting energy into what we want, we’re no longer fearing villains or hoping for heroes, we are creators.
There is value in seeing the nuance and complexity, freedom in not believing that momentary behavior determines who one is. Seeing the dimensionality of life is more truthful and therefore forgiving. Writing the dimensionality of life means our stories become richer, more honest, with the potential to transform.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.