As someone who has had a difficult time finding meaningful television shows or movies, Over the last several years I’ve watched four truly remarkable exceptions that display life lessons that give us deep insights beyond the ordinary ways we are raised.
Whether it’s Homeland, The Americans, Game of Thrones, or Dexter, all four shows challenge our conditioning about nationalism and naïve beliefs about seeing people in black and white (good or bad) ways. They also question ordinary morality and support us in developing compassionate and grounded thinking with out-of-the-box characters that reveal a dimension that goes far beyond ordinary nationalism. We also see dimensions that are rarely revealed. At the same time, these shows also give us directions to live in a more psychologically sane and balanced world and to understand the sameness that we as human beings share, and the complexity that virtually all of us possess as human beings.
Today, I invite you to join me as I explore the lessons these shows have in a much deeper sense. These shows can support us to break free from what we are taught when we were “growing up” and encourage individual contemplation.
A truly remarkable creative work, Homeland is where our American perspective of being the ‘good’ country while the Middle East is ‘bad’ reveals the dangers of black and white thinking.
In a particularly illuminating conversation between two characters who are passionately declaring the weaknesses of the other’s society, we find that often, we get a one-sided account of how one party has been abused or mistreated. In this case, how Americans have been at the receiving end without any mention of what happens in the hearts and minds of those that are in the Middle East.
There’s also an exploration into America’s attachment to money, wealth, and luxury and a lack of commitment to courage, purpose, and going beyond ordinary pleasures. Abu Nazir, the antagonist, a terrorist, claims that Americans would never give up their country clubs and spoiled pleasures. These material attachments reveal how so many Americans, especially those in power, are rarely willing to fight for what they believe in. We hear how Carrie, the American, is outraged at the denial of cruelty against women by reactive religious zealots in the Middle East. The show also reveals the immense benefits and freedom that can happen when a country is not crippled by a bankrupt moral system overrun by religious beliefs and archaic traditions.
Throughout the show, we are shown the reality that we rarely hear the other side’s story. This broke the mold of seeing one side as almost fully evil vs. the other as good and innocent. This is not a statement about the world wars, but wars like Vietnam, Iraq, Iran/Contra — which are not part of the open discourse in the United States.
While watching this show, it highlighted the realization that it’s vital to recognize that we have carried a long shadow starting with our treatment of Native Americans, slavery, and various levels of significant prejudice favoring Caucasians.
An understanding that every country carries a shadow of self-centeredness is the potential beginning of understanding how most of us distort perception in our own country’s favor, and this insight could help inspire world cooperation. Homeland is one of the few shows that reveal the depth of duality in people — making it a service for the world and a source of hope. It provided a benefit to see the sameness that exists in almost all of us, with the exception of truly horrible, evil, and corrupt leaders like Hitler, Idi Amin, Stalin, etc.
The second television series that truly resonated with me for similar and expanded reasons was The Americans. The show follows a real, developing love filled with ambiguity and challenges between two soviet spy parents raising their children while being immersed in violent and sexual espionage. The characters are very lovable yet are soviet spies focused on killing American agents. This in itself is unique in humanizing what we would normally see as evil. Instead, we are introduced to two very real human beings caught in human dilemmas revealing their emotions and caring openly in different ways.
The beauty of showing real love, as well as all the complexities in another country, is what’s truly impactful and thought-provoking. This is what we all need to see that the desires for happiness, freedom, intimacy, and survival are universal, yet somehow the false presentation of our own country and others warps our thinking and policies.
The difference in both cultures is explored deeply when the soviet family system is revealed as one dedicated to the motherland more than the family unit. One of the key lines stated by Elizabeth (the lead female soviet spy) was a revelation of how spoiled and soft American children are — being babied with fun and offered a level of freedom that is narcissistic. “They are often not even taught or given chores to teach responsibility and prepare them for life.”
Is the freedom that we give our kids infantilizing them and not preparing them for a higher purpose other than themselves? Like Homeland, The Americans also spotlights the degree of self-centeredness in the American family and the lack of a sense of common purpose that unites others beyond oneself.
At the same time, it also conveys to any observant watcher of the show how the average soviet child was robbed of any kind of childhood. They were a product of the motherland and that was drilled into them from a young age. It is left up to our subjective thinking and values to see the extremes of both lifestyles. One lacks the wonders of innocence, joy and play, and the other lacks the sense of a common purpose that goes beyond privilege and personal entitlement.
For those of us that are looking for how the world could really work, it seems to offer the balance of the wonders of childhood and the passion for purpose. The former supports the ability to relax and enjoy, and the latter teaches the importance of developing values that go beyond personal desires. Freedom without balance is bankrupt and so is a devotion to a corrupt military system without individual freedom.
The importance of being able to see the values of both freedom and the need to both include and go beyond self and family is a combination of the two systems. We could benefit greatly if we were to take the most developed elements of both systems and find a way to support both individual freedom and inspiration while embracing the need for a purpose that goes beyond self and family.
The series does a brilliant job of revealing a wide range of human emotion that shows the whole human being, and it does not matter whether we are Soviet or American. This kind of depiction goes against the grain of the way we have been raised in America and Russia. I find it of great service to the potential of waking us up to find the emotional and human element inside us, and the yearning to find sources of safety, peace, individuality and purpose.
On the surface, it appears to be a grossly violent show that is hard to tolerate for many people. I almost turned it off until the middle of the first season when we learned why Dexter the serial killer had the impulses inside him.
In the middle of the first season, flashbacks reveal that two-year-old Dexter saw his mother being chainsawed to death, with her blood flowing down the stairs towards him, at the bottom of the stairwell. There is a profound understanding that we don’t really think about the fact that we only know someone based on what we see (or are shown) at a given point in time. The show makes it clear that we don’t really understand people the way we normally think we do, not unless we truly know their past wounds and gifts.
One of the best examples of this is when we look at a homeless person on the street. Most of us are quick to judge or think that we could never be that person. But instead, what if when you see someone who’s homeless the next time before you judge or think you understand, you ask the question, “I wonder what that person’s whole life story is? Do I have any idea when I look at them now?” Take a few moments to contemplate that. It’s rare in this world to even begin to have that kind of curiosity, understanding and empathy.
Before watching this show I couldn’t imagine myself rooting for, feeling protective over and having compassion for a mass killer.
Not only does this series disorient our brain with feeling sympathetic to a serial killer, but also it’s an ongoing commentary on society from our access to Dexter’s humorous and serious interpretations of what it means to be normal. He reveals in multiple ways that the same person can be two extremes at the same time. He is a disassociated killer and a warm-hearted empathetic person.
This complication reveals that virtually all of us have two extremes of good and bad, likeable and undesirable, confused and sure of ourselves. Dexter represents both the best we can be and the worst. This probably for most of us isn’t a conscious thought process, but it is something that in my almost half a century of counselling I’ve found to be invariably true — all of us are much more complicated than we appear. The more we understand this and the more transparent we are to those close to us, the better.
GAME OF THRONES
Another series that breaks new ground in revealing the complexity of the human character is Game of Thrones. It would be hard to find a show with so many characters that you fall in love with who you many times then find out are also the epitome of cruelty or evil.
Other characters are those you love to hate, but at the same time, you see them being loyal and devoted to members of their family or tribe. I haven’t seen this level of depth in characters, especially the sheer number of them anywhere else. GOT characters could be either immoral, cruel, or a rare combination of kind and violent, innocent and killers, seemingly courageous to an extreme yet vulnerable, or even intelligent yet almost moronic.
It breaks surface stereotypes consistently, and even though you think you’ll love or hate someone you can’t be sure anymore. This gives us the possibility of not making snap judgments about people and could help us see (if we look closely) that we don’t really know many people like we think we do. After all, others are, much like us, much more complicated than we appear.
Several characters opened our hearts because their love was so powerful that it stretched our capacity to love or want to love more. For me, personally, this was true for Jon Snow, Rob Stark, Arya Stark, Ned Stark, Brienne, Brandon Stark, and Sam. Each of them was a hero reflecting different qualities of integrity, courage and loyalty that has the capacity to deeply touch our souls.
When I watched the show, it felt like they were part of my family that taught me about how to expand into greater depths of our human nature. It is an uncommon insight to recognize that when we get truly engaged in a character our subconscious is actually feeling the characters as if we are them. It can touch us deeply because they can represent what we strive for, want to identify with or reveal what we hate in ourselves and others.
There were other characters that I loved to hate like Cersei Lannister, whose lust for power and shameless narcissism revealed one of the dark sides that usually is deeply hidden in real life. She, along with her father Tywin Lannister, represents the world’s tyrants and the dialogues reveal how easy it is for them to shut out almost everything other than their own need for control, domination, and false pride. It also makes us contemplate if we have a part of us that responds in those ways too. It is a gift to use a show like this to reveal the complexities of human nature and conditioning.
There were also utterly split characters that represented both the goodness and the darkness dramatically in one person. The Hound was a killer yet, had a soft heart; Daenerys was a deep idealist, freeing slaves while still lusting for omnipotent control of the world; Jaime Lannister was both a killer and loyal to his evil sister to the end.
These kinds of complex characters exist and are obvious in the therapy room, but rarely display themselves so openly as dualistically good and evil. This is healthy for us to realize and can help us identify that so are we if we look closely enough. Most of us highlight the good and hide the bad. A show like Game of Thrones gives us a chance to look beyond our facade and see into ourselves more deeply.
There was key teaching that was also one of the most profound moments I have witnessed in any form of entertainment. It came before Jon Snow spoke passionately to his soldiers who were protesting about his decision to seek support from his enemy, Daenerys Targaryen. Even though her dad, The Mad King, had killed and murdered in the North, he said, “I will not hold an innocent child responsible for the sins of her evil father.”
This proclamation stated exactly what has not been able to happen throughout human history. Powerful countries haven’t been able to suffer openly about the past and yet be open to pursuing peace in the present even if their current leader and people are different from their prior generations. As I reflected, I realized this is what all leaders of nations throughout the world need to hear and then respond accordingly. We need to hold values that do our best to maximize the chances for peace and international cooperation in the present, and realize that this is more important than repeating history and the cycles of violence that perpetuate themselves from generation to generation.
Psychologically it will take an understanding exactly like this to pursue the present possibilities of survival of humanity and peace as more important than reflexively fighting against the traditions and enemies of the past.
The common takeaway from all four shows is that we are all much more complicated than we appear on the surface. and this can help us not judge by appearances. The most gifted amongst us are commonly the most injured also, and the most wounded almost always have gifts that are not obvious.
IMPACT ON WORLD PEACE / IMPACT ON THE WORLD
The nations we come from unwittingly create a hypnotic dream by teaching us a biased history. The earlier we realize this, the better chance the world has to identify with each other and cooperate by gradually disarming psychologically and militarily. This is a crucial aspect of moving toward world peace and cooperation because each nation exaggerates the elements of their superiority, innocence, and fair play both in the present and the past.
As John Lennon said, “You may say I’m a dreamer…. But I’m not the only one.” It is much more realistic in today’s world because with global warming and climate change, it’s clear that we are endangered and in a life-threatening situation, so it isn’t even a matter of idealism, but we are living in a time where our very idea of survival is at stake.
The carryover of the injuries of prior transgressions from one country to another freezes us into killing ourselves and each other and furthers isolation, alienation, and violence. Seeing this universal tendency to distort our own national superiority imperils the world. Seeing our degrees of sameness is one of the great hopes for humanity. This mindset being brought into the international community is a seed of peace.
The media can play a significant role in the unity of our world, and these four series, amongst others, have succeeded. We have seen plenty about how the media has injured the world, so it is vital to point out how it has created benefit and can further it in the future.