All those things you learned in English lit class? They were really lessons in how to live your life.
OK, so you’ve been out of school for a while. Years, perhaps decades. And maybe you haven’t picked up a book since you squeaked through your finals and got your diploma.
But somewhere in the back of your mind, cluttered as it is with a heap of other junk, there’s the vague recollection of some highbrow concepts you learned in English lit. Something about conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist.
If you’ve read this far, you’re thinking, “What the heck does this have to do with me? Or, for that matter, with the title of this article?” Well, let me tell you.
“Protagonist” comes from two Greek roots that mean “the one who acts first”—in other words, the main character of the story, the one who gets the ball rolling, the one the plot revolves around. In your own life, that’s you.
“Antagonist,” on the other hand, means “the one who acts against”. Translation: Whoever or whatever gets in the way of what you want out of life. Note: This doesn’t have to be a person, a flesh-and-blood human being. It can be a group of people, or it can be an abstract, impersonal force.
Here’s where the notion of conflict comes in. Your high-school or college English teacher may have told you that there are four basic conflicts in literature, and they apply to real life as well:
- Man against God
- Man against nature
- Man against man
- Man against himself
Let’s look at them one by one.
You may be an atheist or an agnostic. Fine. Let’s replace “God” with “your higher power”—whoever or whatever you believe in, your credo, your ethical principles, your philosophy. The things you want out of life may hit a roadblock in the form of your conscience, that small, still Jiminy Cricket voice that tells you what’s right and what’s wrong.
You may not be an outdoorsman, braving the elements. You may live quite isolated from nature, in a glass-and-steel urban setting. So let’s replace the traditional term “nature” with its modern equivalent, “environment.” You may feel thwarted or stymied in achieving your goals due to the place and time you find yourself in.
Man against man…that’s an easy one. Of course, it can be man against woman, child, or a whole society. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “Hell is other people.” It sure is if they want one thing, and you want something else.
Finally, man against himself. You may be torn between two wishes or desires, and you know in your heart you can’t have both. So what do you do? One way or another, you’re going to have to give up something and end up a loser, unless you can come up with a win-win solution.
I’ve personally experienced all these conflicts, and I’ve been a protagonist pitted against my share of antagonists. Perhaps if I tell you some of my own story, you’ll see how you, too, can be the hero in the novel of your life.
Man against God: I was raised to be a devout Catholic. As a young man, my dream was to enter a monastery and become a cloistered, contemplative monk. That vision of my future came smack-dab up against the undeniable reality of my gay sexuality.
Man against nature or environment: I’ve always felt I should have lived in another era. Ancient Greece…the Renaissance…Victorian England. I sometimes refer to myself as a 19th-century man. As I get older, it pains me to see the world changing, no longer how I was taught it should be. I’m also a romantic, idealistic dreamer, whose cruel fate it is to be crushed by the brutal realities of life.
Man against man: For many years, I struggled to come to terms with the emotional distance of my father, and I still carry a torch for a man I knew once long ago. Maybe, as a gay person, I experience this particular conflict more acutely than straight guys. Sure seems like it sometimes.
Man against himself: My life partner often says I’m my own worst enemy, and he has a point. I want desperately to be published, read, recognized, appreciated. But, if the warm sunlight of praise is withheld, I wither and die like a poor neglected house plant. And then I stop writing, which is the surest way to be forgotten.
It’s all about choices. The decisions you make along the way determine the plot of your “novel” and how the story finally ends.
I can’t promise you’ll emerge victorious against all your antagonists, the real-life people or impersonal forces that get in the way of what you want out of life. But a novel only has so many pages. Your life is still a work in progress.
That means the final chapter hasn’t been written. You still have time to work out your issues with God, your environment, other people, or yourself. Ever heard the phrase, “the author of your own misfortunes”? Well, it’s literally true, but so is the opposite. You can rewrite your life to make sure it has a happy ending.
There’s hope for me too, I guess. Part of me still yearns to be reconciled with God, as I envision Him…to find a milieu where I belong and am accepted…to find closure in my relationships with my significant others…to integrate the many diverse facets of my being.
As a writer, I’ve been able to guide a host of fictional characters through their tortured conflicts to a peaceful resolution of some kind or other. Perhaps, before I come to “The End” of my life, I’ll be able to do the same for myself. I hope you can as well.
You may remember another foreign-sounding term from your English classes, the French word “denouement.” It means, “the severing of a knot,” but in literature it refers to tying up loose ends. In real life, both could be true. You could be “tied up in knots” (O what a tangled web we weave…), or else you could come unraveled. With any luck, however, you can tie your life neatly like a shoelace, or with a flourish, in a great big bow.
The ancient Greeks believed life was a thread. When the Fates chose to cut it, that was the end, no arguing, no ifs, ands, or buts. The Greeks told the story of how Alexander the Great solved the riddle of the Gordian knot, slicing through it with his sword. They criticized Arachne for mocking the gods and goddesses at her loom and praised shrewd Penelope for plucking her tapestry apart by night to ward off unwanted suitors.
Greek myths were, like modern-day novels, a metaphor for life. You can be a legend in your own time, if you take care to get your story right.
Life can be a slender thread, hanging by a hair’s breadth. Or it can be tough as a rope in a tug of war. On either end of that rope stand two foes locked in mortal combat: the protagonist (you) and the antagonist (the obstacles you face).
Who will win and remain standing? Who will lose and end up mud-spattered, defeated and humiliated? You, and no one else, are the hero in the novel of your life. The choice is up to you.