While Breaking Bad is the best show ever, as Bryan Cranston himself said, you wouldn’t have his show if the Sopranos hadn’t come before it. I’m late to the game but thanks to Apple TV and HBO GO we’ve been gobbling up the Sopranos every evening for the past few months. I feel lucky to live in an era of amazing television writing and so have really enjoyed watching one of the shows that helped herald this new era of anti-heros and complex characters and stories that don’t dumb down to the lowest common denominator. [Don’t get me wrong though, Boy Meets World, deep as a plate though it may be, is still awesome. Full House on the other hand, has not aged well for some reason.]
With great television, we’re also getting great critics who analyze every episode of their favorite shows. I love reading the reviews on my favorite shows via The AV Club and Alan Sepinwall. For me, they’re the Roger Ebert of television.
The AV Club writers in particular can get quite philosophical about the shows they review and encourage the reader to not just think about the show, but themselves. Yesterday after watching the episode before the penultimate episode of The Sopranos, I read this passage in the review as he describes how the children of mobsters, how the wives of mobsters, how the mobsters can live with themselves when all they possess is built on the destruction of others. The writer turned it on the reader:
The odds are pretty good that if you’re reading this, you’re reading it in the West, in the luxury of a comfortable home, on an expensive machine, in a place where you don’t really need to worry about where your next meal is coming from or whether you’ll be killed by an exploding rocket on your way home from the supermarket. Yet to be alive in the West, to be alive in modern society, is to win a massive lottery you didn’t even know you’d entered. Every day, billions of the world’s citizens live in the middle of the uncertainty of their very survival, and the comfort of our own existence involves turning a blind eye to this—the better to make sure we don’t confront the weird luck we’ve all had to be born in this moment, in this place, in this life. We’re born owing such an incredible karmic debt to all of those who are disadvantaged so that we might be advantaged, that to even consider it could shut a person down. So we don’t think about it. This isn’t a condemnation. I do it. You do it. Everybody does it. It’s how we live.
This passage stopped me in my tracks. Why yes, I do look down at the family of the mobsters who see what is going on, feel horrified in the moment, but then get into their expensive cars, go to their expensive homes, and push out the pain and horror around them. And yet, is there something I recognize in them? Is this why there’s always been such animosity for Carmela over Tony? We can identify with her willful ignorance. And we don’t like it.
I recently finished Behind The Beautiful Forevers, a gorgeously written book about the reality of Mumbai’s slums written in very straightforward and honest prose. A friend recommended it nearly a year ago but knowing the content I was afraid to read it, perhaps for the same reason that the children of mobsters don’t want to look behind the curtain of their own lives. But read it I did recently, and in reading I found myself face to face with the reality that as I gripe about the produce at Publix and the weeds overtaking the mulched play area in the backyard, there are people, three-thousand people, stacked atop each other and living in an area equal to my residential lot. And if you remove the man-made borders that created Pakistan, I am just one generation removed from India as my ancestral land. Katerine Boo, because of her years with the people she wrote about was able to move beyond the superficial the horror the horror! of their lives and gives us a nuanced insight into how they think, how they dream, and who they truly were. And in getting to know them, we see we’re not much different from them. Just luckier.
But what does one do with this knowledge? That is where I am stuck. That is where the sadness intersects with guilt. To have so much when others have so little. What can one do to reconcile doing our best to help the world and to also not be broken down by it in fits of guilt? Sure, I can do my part. When I return to the workforce I can go back to helping the underrepresented and under served as I did before. I can continue donating to charities to help those who are disadvantaged [though the book gives sobering insight to what happens with a lot of the charity money]. I can participate in local efforts to help the underprivileged. I can raise my sons to be good moral men who will help make the world a better place– and yet– as Tony’s son, AJ, says I’m just one individual. My impact only so much.
But I guess unlike AJ, who uses that as a reason to stop trying, knowing my impact is small, doesn’t mean I have an excuse to not make the impact I can. Even if its the equivalent of a drop in the ocean, like the starfish philosophy, we do what we can with what we have. And we can tidy up and try to make better the small patch of area we’re given with our deeds, our words, our thoughts. And while it’s not enough. It will never ever be enough. It’s something. And until I can figure out a better way to reconcile it all, it’s what I will do.