Thursday 26 March 2020

The Good Place: the lesson is, we’re already here

Okay, so, naturally, spoilers for the overall arc of The Good Place, but I’ll try to keep them limited to the aspect of the narrative I want to focus on. I’m not giving you a detailed plot overview, more a watercolour impression of it. Besides, this isn’t a story about that show, not really, this is a story about what happened after I watched that show.

Three weeks ago, I was sat smiling in a geothermally heated spa pool in Rotorua, drinking wine and feeling pretty happy about my present and optimistic about my future. Which, if you don’t know me, is a fairly rare occurrence. A few days after that, the world went to Hell. But this isn’t a story about that, either, this is a story about what happened just before it.

I really liked The Good Place. It wasn’t a favourite of mine, the characters, while being likeable, never quite worked for me, something about the overall chemistry was missing a particular magic. But I found the philosophical thought experiments behind each episode fascinating. The show reminded me a lot of Eureka, which was a Syfy show from a few years ago that followed the adventures of a town of geniuses. That show holds a place in my heart because the characters clicked for me, but in the essential format and tone of The Good Place, this is the closest comparison I can make to give you an idea of what it’s like.

The Good Place follows the journey of a woman, Eleanor, who ends up in heaven because she happened to die at the exact moment that a woman who was supposed to go to the Good Place did, and due to a bureaucratic afterlife mix up, she ends up there and the other person takes her spot in the Bad Place. Eleanor is not a terrible person, just a selfish, kinda shitty person. Like most us at our worst. When she works out the mistake, she tries to keep it quiet to avoid being thrown out, despite her presence having a negative effect on the integrity of the Good Place. She ends up embroiling her soulmate, Chidi (or, rather, the soulmate of the woman who should’ve been there) and two others, Tahani and Jason, into her deception. As things progress, it becomes clear that all four of them have been sent to the Good Place in error. When the entity who is architect of this world, Michael (played by the wonderful Ted Danson) uncovers this deception, he and his version of an all-knowing computer-like entity, Janet, work with them to hide the truth. He claims to be doing this because, as one of many architects of infinite afterlives, he wants to avoid being revealed as a failure to his peers. 

But Eleanor works out the truth: that the Good Place is really the Bad Place. At which point, Michael finally admits that he is a demon who had an idea for a new way to torture people beyond the usual fire and brimstone; a psychological torture method. This particular Hell was designed for those four souls alone. To covertly torture each of them, tapping into their sense of worthlessness and playing on it; that specific mix of personalities having been chosen to trigger each other in various ways (a nod here to Red Dwarf’s Lister – Rimmer relationship; where Rimmer is brought back from the dead to annoy Lister’s character. Although this is done in an attempt to keep him engaged in life through irritation, rather than to actually torture him).

What follows from here, through nearly infinite world resets, is a thorough exploration of what it means to be a good person and to live a good life. They find out during their journey that nobody has entered the real Good Place for centuries. Because life is so hard and morally complex now, it’s almost impossible to make a pure moral choice in any decision that we make, even something as small as buying milk from a store is part of a complex web that ultimately links back to some form of abuse or control. Through this they realise that the system by which a human life is judged is inherently flawed, essentially set up for everyone to fail. However, our protagonists prove, when they finally reveal their secrets and what they’ve learned to the auditors of all realities, that even after death, given more opportunities and more experience, humans continue to grow. The eventual result of this is that they change the system, allowing each human to repeat their life on earth enough times to give them chance to eventually live it well enough that they may enter Heaven.

And so, the main characters, who have all grown as people, especially Eleanor, who learns to lead through empathy, finally earn the right to enter the Good Place for real. But when they arrive, after a short while, they begin to notice that something is very wrong. The amazing and intelligent individuals around them are diminished, missing the essential notes that made them who they were. In the Good Place, everything anyone ever wants is immediately given to them. There is no struggle, there are no challenges, no obstacles, no strength of character or force of will is required to achieve or experience anything. All desires are fulfilled instantly, for infinity. Everything is perfect. What they come to realise is: nobody wants this, not really. We’re not designed for it. Without an ending, without the alternative of not having something being a real option, everything loses meaning. And when there is no need to create or invent or innovate or connect, our fundamental passions cease to exist. The resolution to all of this is that they create another ending. A door through which the souls of Heaven can walk and paradise can end, when they are ready for it to end. A door that leads to… nobody knows. Knowing that they can leave, inspires them to thoroughly experience everything they want to, before walking through the door.

The story then follows each of our main protagonists as they live out their existences to the point where each of them finds peace, and gradually, one by one, they pass through to the other side. To me, this seemed like the perfect experience of a life, to live so long and so much that you truly could feel at peace with the thought of not existing anymore. Of course, the pain of real life is that we have no power over when we have to walk through that door, so most of us never get a chance to come anywhere near to that sense of peace. We just don’t have enough time. I was startled by the argument they were putting forth: that even if there were an afterlife, the human experience is defined by its finite nature, and that in the absence of an ending, the ultimate conclusion is that we are compelled to create another. We simply can’t conceive of anything else.

As the ending of the show washed over me, I sat there and tried to imagine how that peace, that conviction that you’re finally complete, must feel. In doing so, although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was asking myself a question. And the response to that question came from my gut. Do you know that overwhelming longing feeling you get in your gut sometimes, when there’s something or someone that you really care about? Well this was like that. But it was not just one feeling, it was many, so damn many. And it all came to me: the reasons why I’m here, why I still want to be here, why I still need to be here. Ideas and passions and things I need to do and be and explore and experience, people I cannot imagine being without, not even for a moment. All of it, tying me to the earth, demanding that I stay. And I felt so fucking relieved.

Because so many times in my life, I didn’t want to be here at all. When it felt like being here still was just too painful, and at least the absence of pain would be better than living with it. To know, to feel absolute conviction that not only do I want to still be here, I will fight to be here, was an incredible experience for me. Ever since then, I’ve felt filled with a kind of energy that my experience over the last few years has only helped to galvanise, this feeling that I can do (almost) anything, if I really want it that badly.

Back in Vietnam, on my 31st birthday, I was sat having a boba with a teacher friend of mine. I’ll call her C. C is beautiful and vulnerable but also one of the most resilient people I’ve ever met. I was speaking about how crazy I was finding everything and how utterly lost I felt on so many levels, and she told me to write a list. To write a list of 100 things that I wanted to do with my life. I suppose that’s a bucket list, but it felt like more than that, or maybe it was just a broader concept than that. Because this wasn’t just a list of things you wanted to do or see, but a list of things one would want to be, through small steps of self-improvement, expression and experience (okay, so, yes, a bucket list in essence, but I’m too pretentious to really admit that). Many times since then, I’ve tried to write a list, but each thing on it I questioned or doubted, I found the voice driving my pen was ‘should’ rather than ‘want’ and my list never really went anywhere.

The day after I came back from my trip to Rotorua, I started to write that list. The day after that, I went back to writing my novel that I’ve not touched in five years. Because now I know, I truly know, what and who is important to me. Without question, without second guessing, without argument. Because the other thing that has changed for me recently is moving from an unwavering belief in my own inadequacy, to an unwavering belief in my resilience and capability. I finally feel equipped to work toward the things I want. And the day after I got my shit together – the world started to shut down. I never have had the best timing.

Don’t get me wrong, things haven’t been good for a while. I mean, globally speaking. They really haven’t been, it’s been going to shit for some time, on every level. But we’re now in the middle of the first worldwide pandemic of modern times. It’s scary, and surreal, and requires constant recalibration as our reality changes daily; and not just in a short-term, ‘we’ll solve the problem’, way, but in a ‘this is how things will be for the foreseeable’ way. The final trigger for me to take things a bit more seriously was the realisation that I might not be able to travel home if I was needed during this time. Living on the other side of the world has only really been possible for me if I can look up into the sky at the planes flying out of Wellington and smile at the thought that it could be me, at any moment, if I needed it to be. But that’s not how it is now, and that's not how it will be for a little while. On the plus side, the anxiety has sent my metabolism into overdrive and I’ve dropped a stone since the start of the month, so I guess I have to look on the positive side of that, while my insides do their best to burn themselves out through impotent churning. But I know enough to know that I can’t just be in that state for an indefinite period, we’re all going to need to look after ourselves and manage the anxiety. We have to learn to live in a new world, but we will, and it will happen much faster than we could ever imagine.

Everything will be fine, we know this. It will be hard, and we may lose people, and we quite probably will become ill ourselves, but this isn’t it, and we know it. But we also know that this isn’t the last of it, so we need to learn lessons from this first one. And if I’m wrong, and this is it, you can bet your last bottle of emergency water I’m coming for you. Those of you that you I don’t want to be here without, I’ll get to you. You’re not even all in the same damn place, but you know that doesn’t matter. Do you think that would stop me, honestly?

I’m the girl who moved to Saigon and knew nothing and nobody there and couldn’t speak the language for toffee and I not only survived in an environment that was alien to everything I’d ever known or believed, I thrived. Do you know why? Because I learned to recalibrate constantly in response to the rapidly changing and chaotic world around me. I grew. Because deep down, I’m steel underneath, and you know that, deep down, you are too. But yeah, wild horses wouldn’t keep me away. And I will take this moment to casually point out that New Zealand is well placed to survive an apocalypse, because it’s so damn far away from anywhere else. So, dearest ones, if you fancy relocating here before the next pandemic, that would be swell. Because if it’s a choice between me leaving the relative safety of this place to go down with the ship, or me staying in the safer place because y’all are already here, I know which I’d prefer. But as it stands, I’m certain I would do the opposite of the last chopper out of Saigon, because, annoyingly enough, you’re one of the things I’m now certain of.

This experience will also build greater resilience and strength in all of us. Resilience that, may I say, many in the world already possess due to the hardships they’ve endured. In the West, for the last couple of generations, at least, we’ve had it relatively easy. Not everyone – but the majority. But another lesson I’ve learned in recent years is that the rest of the world is struggling, with real poverty, real conflict, and the very real impact of our changing climate. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as separate to this struggle just because things in our little bubbles are mostly okay; the world is burning. That’s not hyperbole. I hope something we all take from this is an understanding that in order for anything to change, we all need to change. And given that, overnight, we changed into a world of people that put the needs of the many over the needs of the few, I don’t see how this isn’t possible. This shows us that all things are.

I just happened to have this series of epiphanies a few weeks ago, and current events motivated me to write it all down for you in a white-hot fever. But it strikes me that we have a real opportunity to check in with ourselves here. We are being forced to pause for the first time in our entire lives. It’s unprecedented. Which means there is space in this moment to have some unprecedented insights into who we are, and what we want to do while we’re here, when the world is open again.

I think if you give yourself a chance, and you’re really willing to listen, the answers will reveal themselves in the way your gut responds. For me, it was a succession of physical sensations, that told me very clearly who and what my priorities are. And the world around us is about to be so quiet that we might, for once, be able to hear ourselves. Because it’s not about what happens next, in any kind of afterlife or never-never, it’s about what happens here.

One of my favourite aspects of The Good Place was that it completely side-lined the idea of a creator, a religion, a power behind any kind of life after death as being completely immaterial to the story they wanted to tell.  Whatever the truth is, whatever the mechanism is, that’s only a facilitator to the real questions that preoccupy us – what is a life, and how do we live one? All that we want and desire and believe in and care about is all around us, right now, it’s within our power to have these things right here on earth. I don’t mean all things, there are things and people we’ve lost that can never be replaced, but that’s the struggle that keeps us growing and changing for the whole of our lives. And even then, we won’t get all of the things we want, but that’s the risk we take every day, in trying to live our lives as who we are. But we may as well fucking try, because what else is this all about, really? What is a life; if not the ideas and people and moments that matter to us? The things that all together, good and bad and every nuance in between, make us who we are.

For me, right now, I feel like I’m finally operating without a safety net. There are no planes in the sky, or at least, not like there once were. I’m really, finally, that far away from home. But I couldn’t feel less alone. I have so many people checking in with me and supporting me, that I feel truly humbled and grateful. And the certainty I now feel in these relationships has made me reinterpret what I’ve always considered to be the dark core of our existence: our true existential aloneness. A condition that no relationship, no connection, no action or thought of any kind can you relieve you from; it is a certainty. But here’s what I’ve learned: it’s also a gift. When you stop fearing it and see it for what it really is: it’s a gift.

Our existential isolation is our connection to ourselves. It’s a world where only we exist, and the time we spend in that place is our connection to self and to the infinite. There’s nothing between you and the universe in that space. This is our opportunity to experience life as an individual; and it’s, like, right now*, before our atoms go back to being earth or worms or whatever the fuck actually happens, I don’t know the science. So while it’s scary to be alone sometimes, it’s hard and it’s unrelenting, it’s the joy we can find within those moments, the moments we never share because they exist only for us, that make us unique. This is why I really mean it when I say, whatever our lives are going to be, whoever we are going to be, we will find it only here and nowhere else.

We’re already in the Good Place.

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