Something that struck me this week, watching the response to the disastrous weather in the USA, was how the phrase “Just like a movie” was used again and again.
It’s the same reaction we heard from witnesses of 9-11. “It was like something out of a disaster film”. I understand how that feels – I watched those events unfold on a TV on another continent, but I also felt it hard to grasp that this was news footage and not fantasy.
There is human suffering – natural and man-made – happening all over the world, right now. There is genocide in Sri Lanka and Syria, there are devastating floods in Thailand and Pakistan, there are earthquakes and famines and civil wars. But these terrible events are not set in landscapes that we have seen in Hollywood films. So they don’t look like the movies. And I wonder if we find them harder to understand, in some way, because of that? Because it’s a story we haven’t heard?
Storytelling is so important to human beings. We tell each other scenarios – real or imagined – and show characters who suffer, but who overcome adversity in the end. And our brains absorb these stories almost as though we have lived the experience itself. We learn, without having had to suffer.
Stories are told in many ways, in written fiction, in art and on film. We project our fears and hopes into these stories. And although, thinking of the disasters I mentioned above, Hollywood hasn’t always got it covered, you don’t have to look far to find written stories about these kinds of events. The best selling book in the world chronicles them all.
Do we feel comfort that something we experience is so terrible that it is just like in a movie or in a book? Perhaps. Because the day we are confronted with something that we have not yet been able to imagine will be a terrible day indeed.