WP3: My Journey to an Empathetic Philosophy on Life

Maxwell Jones
10 min readNov 14, 2020

When asked to categorize my intellectual identity, I find the process rather difficult; one’s intellectual identity is a culmination of the experiences, perspectives, opinions, and insights that a person possesses, and rarely can we categorize that possession into a single word. While I cannot assign my intellectual identity one space, I can connect its makeup through an infatuation with story and humanity, as well as life and death, that I’ve had as long as I can remember. What for years seemed to be an irresistible, intangible, and irrelevant obsession over these two concepts, I recently became more aware of the intersections between these lifelong fixations and how they come together to shape a significant portion of me, or my intellectual identity.

An essential part of my personality is that I try to explain mostly everything that I’m concerned with; I articulate my emotions, explain the brilliance of scripts I love, and find reason for the events in my own life and in society. I try to recognize themes and patterns that create cycles, and assess how those cycles can best be handled in the context of one’s life. My obsession with death, which until recently was an obsession dominated by fear and uncertainty, was the exception of this aspect of my personality; I avoided the topic of death and any logical exploration of the concerns centered around it, because, for the life of me, I couldn’t make sense of it — and it scared me tremendously. This fear prevented me from being completely honest with myself about what I believe in, as I would go from lying to myself about my faith or writing off all religion as wrong. Through the passing of my father, though, and the close, thematic, analysis of his life, I began to understand what I believe in, and how close my passion for storytelling has always been to this new philosophy I developed.

From pretty much whatever age I gained the ability to question the legitimacy of others’ comments, I began second-guessing the Catholic faith my grandparents had taught me was empirical. I began wondering if the things I was told were real without any evidence really existed: God, heaven, and souls — nothing proved the reality of these things. This battle of logic that I was in became more than just a thought that drifted in and out of my head — with this suspicion came other deep, philosophical doubts of the world I’d been told was real. I became overwhelmed at the idea of never seeing my parents again, sometimes crying from the thought of losing them forever. I feared that when my time came I wouldn’t be greeted by pearly gates, but by an end to my consciousness, and everything I’d done, thought, and loved suddenly meaning nothing in my absence. I didn’t know at the time, but storytelling would be what allowed me to alleviate this fear and embrace life and death.

As Adam Skelter describes in his “Character Arcs and Theme” video essay, story is “a way to experience events through the eyes of another person, and help us internalize values as our own. [It] transforms the way we see the world.” Before the death of my father, this analysis of story was true to me, but only within the dramatized tales I consumed. I did not realize that through looking at stories in real life with that same perspective — the internalization of the struggles and values of someone — that I could unlock that same meaning and purpose found in fiction. After running from the discussion of death my entire life, my father’s passing consumed my mind so strongly that I couldn’t push the topic aside any longer. As I thought, articulated, and searched for any kind of sense in my father’s death, I internalized the struggles, themes, and values of my father’s story, and in result, transformed my vision of the world.

On August 23, 2019, I received a call from my grandma at about 1pm; my father had been involved in a fatal car accident and was gone. As the weeks passed and I processed the incident, I started doing what I did with everything else; I began articulating, finding reason, and fixating on the how and why of my father’s sudden passing.

Adam Skelter describes the beginning of a character’s arc in “Character Arcs and Theme”, specifically after the first act, in which “the participant is forced to leave something behind by breaking with previous practices and routines. They experience a metaphorical death.” As I began my analysis of my father’s life, I started where I felt I knew the most about: his 20s. This is where he spent much of his time getting belligerently drunk in LA clubs, dating women, and driving home drunk. Though my dad occasionally talked about these times in a romantic fashion, I noticed he always spoke about them with a cautious tone, and rightfully so. This was because my father retired that lifestyle for a monumental reason: though I never was told the event or string of events that led him to this epiphany, he eventually recognized the toxicity of this reckless lifestyle. Before heading too far down the path of addiction and partying, my dad told me he realized that he was lucky he hadn’t killed himself or someone else with his behavior, and changed the direction his life was heading; he got completely sober, met my mom and got serious with her, and started a family that he loved with all his might. My dad had successfully recognized the limitations of the lifestyle he was living, the danger that was involved, and realized that living a fuller, more meaningful life meant leaving behind this version of himself.

But of course, as my father’s story progressed, new obstacles began getting in the way of the life he wanted to live. In Skelter’s video essay, he references Judith Weston’s description of the spine of a character: “The spine is the character’s super-objective… it is what the character wants out of life, his overwhelming preoccupation, his driving need.” In this second half of my father’s story, his spine was balance — a balance between family, hobbies, and time for himself. For a while, my dad maintained this balance well; his job as a sales representative at American Apparel let him create his own hours, did not lock him in an office, and allowed him to surf and cycle consistently, all while providing for our family. This flexibility was what allowed my dad to live a healthy life with his family and a free one on his own… but after the Great Recession in 2008, my dad’s pay was cut dramatically. Suddenly, he and my mom together were making less than what my dad once made on his own. This balance he once had was disrupted, but my father only waited stagnantly, hoping to reestablish that happy medium.

As time went on, though, my father’s problems got more severe, and the necessity of change became more clear to everyone but him. Skelter describes the transitional stage in a character’s journey in which the character faces “conflicts [they] must face to break down their previous worldview and open them to new perspectives.” My father’s problem was that no matter how severe, life-threatening, or stressful these conflicts became, he refused to break down his world view and grow into new perspectives.

He began suffering from consistent seizures that dulled his senses, making him slow, paranoid, and insecure. Rather than recognize these seizures as the sign they were to change, he doubled down on all of his toxic lifestyle choices; he looked even harder for a job that required driving, started spending less and less time with our family, and began cycling and surfing more, endangering him in his new mental state and exacerbating the financial crisis my family faced. And when we found out his body was covered in blood clots a year later, so much so that the doctors believed he had pancreatic cancer — he doubled down again. Despite my dad sitting there for hours awaiting a diagnosis that would’ve given him months to live,almost as if the universe wanted to give him one last chance to change, he still couldn’t see the sign for what it was. His insecurities clouded his judgement, making him more focused on how he could be fulfilled by retaining his previous lifestyle than adapting to the reality of his new world. In my father’s quest for balance between his own personal desires and being a family man, he never understood that achieving this medium meant choosing what to balance, not balancing it all. So when I found out that my father’s time away from home was because of an affair, and he was hit within minutes from the woman’s house only a week after organizing my mom’s birthday dinner, I finally understood what led my father to his tragic fate: his failure to acknowledge the new perspective of his reality.

From the previous paragraph, you might expect I’m angry at my father; after all, if he had stopped denying reality to keep living out his own life, he’d still be here and none of us would be dealing with his loss. But by looking at my dad’s life as a story, it had the opposite effect on me; my dad’s choices were not a result of his lack of love or goodness, but rather an overwhelming insecurity and fear of losing his youth and moving on to a new stage of life. Seeing him as a character, as one a part of the grand story of the world as well as the stories of all the people he knew, allows me to be honest about all of the places my father lacked without forgetting where he shined. This critical, honest, and empathetic lens lets me feel every true emotion about my father: the deep sadness that I’ll never see him again, the thankfulness for the years of our friendship, and the peace with knowing his story was complete.

This peace and understanding trickled down into every other meaningful aspect of my life, and soon, my critical analysis of everything revealed more of my fears, and even more of my capabilities. I realized that even though I felt I knew a decent amount of story, the reason I had not written one was because I felt too afraid to be vulnerable enough to write something true to myself… all my ideas were spinoffs of other movies I liked with decently interesting premises but completely lacking in character or meaning. Through this new perspective on life, though, quite literally everything was a story to me, and a personal one at that; everything from our governmental institutions to the incompetent President Donald Trump suddenly became a complex story with countless compelling themes within them. I started writing down every interesting story that popped into my head, and soon, I had numerous feature ideas that sounded intriguing and emotional, just like the stories that inspired me so much as a child.

This new ability of translating humanity into the realm of story has allowed me to write about those that have endured loss like I have, but from any perspective. For example, I’m currently writing a script about an Iraqi teenager that comes home one day to find his town bombed to shreds by a U.S. drone strike. In retaliation, confusion, and anger, he joins a fundamentalist extremist group and at the end of the story, blows up himself and a squad of American soldiers. Though I do not relate with this character at all on an external level, as most notably, I am American and he is Iraqi, I empathize with his story because I understand how painful that feeling of loss is, and how when steered in any direction, grief creates strong and passionate perspectives — a reality that can be beautiful or detrimental. I am lucky to be from a middle-class, American home, as I had the resources to channel my energy into something positive… but not everyone has that opportunity, and therefore, I cannot judge them for whatever paths they end up following. Connecting with people through their experiences and struggles lets me write personal and relatable stories from any perspective, so long as I do not lose sight of the humanity that connects us all.

While this new perspective I gained cannot undo the pain and sadness I feel in my father’s absence, it has equipped me with the most holistic and thorough understanding of the people around me, myself, and what my place is in the world. While some might argue that this storytelling-in-life is just making a movie script out of real life events, I firmly believe it is so much more. Piecing together my father’s story made me realize that at our core, we are all morally grey beings striving to be the best version of ourselves, but often are misguided or stopped by the internal struggles we all face. Viewing people as I would a character gives me the most honest, empathetic, and detailed information on who they are, and what their story might be. Without viewing people from this empathetic perspective, we use our past judgements, focus on surface-level observations, and end up defining people on their worst actions instead of asking ourselves what might have led them to their immorality, annoyingness, or insecurity.

Even though I wish my father were still here more than anything, as his story began to make sense the more I thought about it, so did mine. My whole life, I didn’t allow myself to be honest about what I believed in — that fear of death made me dodge the questions that challenged the afterlife and seek out information that made me feel safer, not more enlightened. After the passing of my father, I no longer feel afraid of any knowledge, feel too vulnerable to start any project, or dishonest about any of the things that I believe in. While my father was here, he taught me how to be apologetic, understanding, loving, and a good friend. In death, he’s taught me how to see each individual as a complex whole, rather than a defining characteristic; he’s taught me how to be a creative writer that explores grey areas and different perspectives; and most importantly, he’s taught me to love life and the story I’ve been tasked with creating, and embrace death as an essential part of that meaningful whole. My father’s final character arc propelled me into my first one, embedding my identity in empathy, curiosity, and honesty, shaping the future of how I will live my life.

References

Skelter, A. (Director). (2016, August 29). CHARACTER ARCS AND THEME [Video file]. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GngPKwCDeTU&list=PL-AxxYmYU_5S67XLRTDQAWhmKYMWh7z2f&index=2&ab_channel=TheArtOfStory

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