What's at Stake?

How do you know when you really know someone?

This is a question that I've pondered often over the years. It has usually happened with someone I thought I knew well acted in a way that was inconsistent with the person that I thought I knew.

In one case, a friend walked away from our friendship. And did so with intention and announcement.

In another case, a friend essentially disappeared. Changed jobs, twice; moved, twice, and the links, even those online disappeared.

I've thought about this over the past few days as I've reflected on seeing James Cameron's technological marvel, Avatar. You should see Avatar in 3D. It is an experience that you should have to see how far the digital film technology has come to be able to create the scenes you'll see.

That said, I was disappointed with the film as a story. I sat there in the theater detached from the story. I thought, "What size HD TV will I need to watch this at home." "Imagine Lord of the Rings with this level of visual effect." "Isn't this Dances with Wolves in Space?"  Granted there is an interesting moral question at the heart of the in-story Avatar technology, but the context and story that is wrapped around it is not. It is too much a retread of simplistic themes we've seen elsewhere.

What makes for a compelling story is compelling characters? What makes for a compelling character is the same thing that makes it possible to really know people.

We need to know what is at stake for them. We need to know what they fear losing, not just what they love.

In Avatar, the Stephen Lang character, Colonel Quaritch is a cardboard cutout of every blood-thirsty maniac soldier we seen before.  He is a cartoon caricature of those who are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq right now. We know that because for this Colonel, he has nothing to lose. His only concern is completing his mission. It is what he believes in. We don't really know this man. He's just a vehicle for moving the story along, providing some dramatic contrast between the good guys and the bad guys. As a result, he distracts from the story and makes it less interesting.  It is the real reason that movie Westerns lost favor with the public. Now the setting is outer space.

As a result of watching Avatar, I am rewatching The Lord of the Rings. The story is filled with the realization of what is at stake, of what could be lost, and therefore, what truly matters to people. It is the kind of story that I wish Cameron would have written. Here's a comparison between these two fantasies.

For Frodo Baggins, if he fails in his quest, he not only loses his life, but the Shire as well and all of Middle Earth is lost. Here we see author JRR Tolkien's lament for the loss of the simple human scale values of the medieval world to a modern culture of technology that rules all of us.

For Jake Sully, to foresake his human life to live permanently as a Na'vi seems as normal and simple as changing jobs. Did the world and the people from where he came not mean anything to him? What would his mother say of his choice? Is he just a nice version of Colonel Quaritch, only living to complete the missions given him by his superiors, detached from his humanity with nothing really to lose but his disability?  Is this what he found in the Na'vi? Is their primal culture more authentic and humanitarian than the technological, consumer one that he has lived in all his life? Or is it that he finds something that he really wants - the girl? - that is not worth losing? It isn't really that clear to me.

It is common for people today to speak about what they are passionate about. It is an indicator of what they believe in and what they love.

However, until we understand what they fear losing do we truly know people. It is a far greater motivator than desire. When we know what is at stake then we know what truly matters.