I am currently sitting in my favorite Sierra Madre coffee shop sipping on a cup of vanilla nut coffee while listening to an odd version of the Jurassic Park theme song – a 54-minute, time-stretched version of the 3:28 original. With the music blaring through my ear buds and my MacBook perched on my lap, I am also looking at glorious images of Saturn that were recently beamed back to Earth from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft – a tiny little 13’ x 22’ trophy of human progress that will meet its demise when it plunges into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15th. Over 745 million miles from Earth in a deathly silent, frigid corner of our solar system, Cassini will die utterly abandoned and completely forsaken. Cassini will never again be seen by human eyes… for the rest of eternity.
The gargantuan nature of our solar system and my smallness in the midst of it all is overwhelming me. In this moment, though surrounded by chatty coffee patrons and a few restless toddlers, I am engulfed with a deep sense of awe, wonder, possibility, and humility… in this moment, the most insurmountable obstacles I could ever face seem small in comparison to the awesomeness of the universe… in this moment my spirit is connected to The Great Mystery. In this moment, although I do not understand my place in The Cosmos, I accept it. In this moment, my spirit is communing with God.
Many of us have had those sublime experiences in which we have been overwhelmed with a sense of deep connection to something bigger than ourselves, a profound humility and an expectant hope, a hope for something we can’t even articulate, a subtle awareness that despite all of the negativity in the world, there just might be a benevolent force out there in the universe that’s writing a better story for humanity.
I unapologetically reference the movie Contact (1997) quite a bit, and I will continue to do so in many future posts. I resonate so deeply with Jodie Foster's character in the film; Contact has been one of my all-time favorite movies since I first saw it in theatres twenty years ago. The penultimate scene of the movie finds Ellie Arroway seated before a Congressional Hearing where she is asked to give empirical proof that she traveled to the far reaches of the galaxy and had an encounter with an alien race. No such evidence exists, so all Ellie can do is attempt to describe her trip through anecdotal accounts and impressions. Ellie's retelling of the events isn't logical nor is it backed up by quantifiable data, instead it is an expression of Ellie's spirit, it is the moment in the story when she concedes the contentious war between her dueling mind and soul and gives in to what her spirit is trying to teach her... and it is one of the best articulations of transcendence I have ever heard:
“I had an experience. I can't prove it, I can't even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not… that none of us are alone. I wish I could share that. I wish that everyone, if even for one moment, could feel that awe and humility and the hope, but… that continues to be my wish.” - Ellie Arroway
This is the transcendent EXPERIENCE. That moment when our warring bodies, minds, and souls concede the unresolvable battle, lay down their arms, and allow spirit to speak profound truth into every receptive fiber of our being. Ellie Arroway is arguably not a religious person, and yet here she is having an enlightened, spiritual experience.
The beautiful thing about the transcendent experience is the fact that anybody (regardless of their faith or lack thereof) can have such a transformative encounter. And we can have it by contemplating the nature of literally anything. Considering the grandiosity of the universe or the quantum physics of an atom or the intricacies of a snowflake or a bunch of black and white photos of the planet Saturn downloaded onto one’s laptop in a small little coffee shop in Sierra Madre can lead even the most jaded soul to a place of awe and wonder, a place that opens doorways to profound truth.
So, when speaking about transcendent stories, it is important that we differentiate between the story and the experience. I had a transcendent experience a little over a year ago, when I re-watched the movie Back to the Future (1985). While watching the film, I found myself considering the godlike nature of the screenwriter and how even the most seemingly insignificant moments in Marty McFly’s life had profound relevance to the narrative that was unfolding. I was suddenly struck with a heartsick longing; I wanted the "seemingly insignificant" moments in my own life to have profound meaning. I questioned whether or not my life was authored, left to chance, or if I read authorship into my experiences while life unfolds in some fashion that is beyond my comprehension. I was overcome with a sense of grandiosity and wonder. It was a transcendent moment, and so I paused the movie and took to Twitter (because apparently that is what one does when one experiences enlightenment…) and I wrote the following tweet:
“The mere existence of STORY suggests our longing for lives orchestrated by forces greater than ourselves.”
It was a beautiful moment that I will never forget. But as profound of an experience as my contemplative viewing of Back to the Future might have been, Back to the Future is hardly a transcendent story. It is an entertaining action/comedy about time travel in which the main character arguably doesn’t even learn a lesson! But I had a transcendent experience with it nonetheless.
But actual transcendent stories fall into a different category altogether. Films like Contact or The Tree of Life (2011) have transcendent qualities organically embedded within their very narrative fabric. Whether audiences give themselves over to the process of transcendence while watching these films, however is up to the them. But I believe it is apparent to most audience members that the thematic goals of a movie like The Tree of Life are far loftier than the goals of a movie like Back to the Future.
This blog is devoted to helping writers craft those elevated types of stories - narratives about characters who transcend their binary worlds or narratives that offer audiences a chance to do the same. In part two of this post we will look at two types of transcendent stories: The Character Transcendent Story and the Audience Transcendent Story.
More to come!