One of my favorite pastimes is watching a good movie or reading a good book. Sometimes I can even appreciate bad books or movies, usually because they’re so bad that they become humorous, become a comedy and part of the comedy is that it was clearly meant to be a horror…

Image by hucky – source: Pixabay

But what is it exactly that drives us to escape our daily lifes to be taken away on a journey with a made up character in a made up world? Even when the character and world are far worse off than we are in our mundane existences? What is so appealing to fantasize about being a lone hero who just lost everything they loved, trying to survive in some post apocalyptic universe littered with death and despair? Survival games are among the most popular, I lost count of how many zombie movies came out past decade, but I’m sure it’s more than any preceding decade. Even a popular and well depicted superhero like Christopher Nolan’s Batman is ultimately a tragic figure: he literally loses everything that’s important and sacrifices his life essentially to protect the citizens of Gotham, the city his father gave so much for.

The movies and stories that make us feel good, like comedies, we don’t fantasize about. Sure, it’s a good time while it lasts, but the impression is fleeting when compared to the stories that are set in objectively miserable circumstances. Frodo in Lord of the Rings faces death multiple times and his journey to and in Mordor are no vacation. The Avengers are as tragic as Batman is; they all pay a steep price for their hero status and the stories make abundantly clear that these powers come with the kind of responsibility most of us aren’t willing or able to bare.

So what is it then that makes all of us so eager to stand in the shoes of those who lead such difficult lifes? Although I’m not certified in any way to give a professional opinion about this, I believe it’s the clear sense of purpose these protagonists are given. Having a sense of purpose is an essential motivator for human action and interaction. This sense of purpose, having a set of clear goals to work toward, is something that seems to be lacking sometimes in real life, especially in our times when individualism is the be all and end all in all public messages. “The” truth is not as important as “your” truth, ultimately leading to an age of nihilism where everybody is as important as everybody else, making nobody important at all. Where your truth is as valuable as my truth, regardless of which truth resembles reality more.

Image by BK – source: Flickr

When we are asking ourselves a thousand questions each day, wondering what to do today to make tomorrow better, our fantastical heroes have no such worries; their circumstances have taken a dramatic turn for the worse and they have one or two simple goals; get out of this mess and take revenge on the ones responsible for it. Or make preparations during the day so you can survive the zombie-filled night. Or train hard to prepare for the ultimate fight at the end, making amends for some past mistakes along the way. Or… I think you get what I’m trying to say…

On a scientific and philosophical level we can discuss all day about the existence of a meaning, a purpose to all of it, to our existence in this universe. But on a practical level, in our daily lifes, I believe having a sense of purpose is essential. In many old cultures your task in life was set the day you were born; your purpose in life was clear and unquestionable. It’s good we’ve evolved past that, but it’s useful to stop and think about how liberating it can be to have a clear and present set of goals in life. That’s why we are so willing to be swept into a world full of obstacles to overcome, and temporarily stand in the shoes of the one to overcome them. Our need for purpose is the purpose of fantasy.

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  1. James Diegel

    I really enjoyed this tryxo66 … I can’t help but think that a lot of the things you mentioned have been mainstays in the stories of old as well – and yes, I would gladly take on the burden of being a superhero… and I have no idea why after reading your insights 😉

  2. sandwichbill

    Interesting, I agree with your sense of purpose conclusion. Apparently, a lot of people play computer games, because they brighten up their futile lives. I heard this on a radio programme and some guy said he played a gangster computer game, because it allowed him to imagine he was living the life he really wanted to live in reality.



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