I feel pain for fictional characters. Sometimes I think this is very wrong, even twisted somehow, considering the world already has enough pain in it. Sometimes I think this is very right, unifying even, considering that fiction is an artistic medium through which people can communicate otherwise inexplicable pain. However, I must also remember that fiction also has another purpose – to entertain, which is essentially an effort to distract us from our own suffering.
I’ve been watching Farscape, a joint project between Australian Nine Network and American Sci Fi Channel. It is four full seasons and one made for television movie chronicling the adventures of American astronaut John Crichton “lost in a distant part of the universe.” When watching a series in such a compact time frame I am often struck by how intense they are. What took five years on television, took three weeks at home. That’s when I see how much suffering this “entertainment” depicts. Crichton was literally (in the best fictional sense of that word) hunted unrelentingly across the galaxy for four years. Captured, sentenced to death, escaped, captured, tortured, escaped, beaten, died on three separate occasions, made friends and lost friends, driven mad several times, killed evil people and innocent people, been infected by several plagues, shot more times than I could count, captured and escaped some more, strapped on a nuclear bomb, crash landed a few times, and never, ever coming down from that adrenalin high. Can you, as the suspension of disbelief demands, imagine living like that? That's when I start to feel the pain.
It is ironic. We create these escapes for ourselves only to find such pain in them. We laugh with our characters, love with them, mourn for them, even wish them well. If we could spare even a tenth of that depth of feeling for our fellow man, imagine what such a level of compassion could accomplish. Imagine the outpouring of kindness that would follow. Yet we continually shy away from the real suffering of this world to hide in our fictions. We ignore Darfur, Afghanistan, Mexico, the homeless on the street corner two blocks from here, the woman with the black eye sitting at the next table, the couple yelling at each other outside the grocery store. Then we re-create it in our daytime soap operas and cheesy cable dramas, sanitized of reality, but still such an intrinsic part of our existence that we do not even know how to depict a world without it. We are obsessed with it and most of us never think to question why. We who know the dharma are so very damned lucky.
Suffering truly is everywhere.