One reason we like TV is that it presents our world as more than it usually appears to be. I’m thinking of shows like Mad Men or The Good Wife or Parenthood or Masters of Sex, where characters effortlessly wear beautiful clothing, even when long days stretch into late nights, where women are never seen without full makeup, and where the sets, whether homes, offices, restaurants, or courtrooms, are more beautiful than those actual places would be. Each color palette is carefully conceived, the lighting angles are flattering, and the tilt of the camera and its length of focus brings out the emotion in an actor’s expression.
We know that in real life those characters — at least if they were us — would be slipping off their high heels, falling asleep from that much drinking, or looking in vain for a bench at the Hall of Justice. But is there something more that’s different between the screen world and the real world? Do all of the cinematic components create a false reality, or do they help us see the reality that we are often blind to?
We share many store lines with the characters we watch. We have a career that rises and falls — but not as captivatingly as that of the dapper Don Draper. We have relationships that are stretched and strained and patched back together — but not as poetically and decisively as the marriages on Parenthood.
Call this “heightened reality.” I have been working on a manuscript for many months, and I am aware of the literary devices that authors employ to heighten reality. Sentence structure, repetition, alliteration and word choice — they help create a mood and sense of flow. Since I’m writing a memoir, I’m aware that, in a sense, I’m creating a screen version of my own life. I have mixed feelings about the whole process!
But as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day approach, I wonder if one of the treasures of the season is the dose of heightened reality the holiday gives our everyday lives. We treasure a candlelight service because the darkness, the music, and the candles create that slightly-blurred version of reality that’s gorgeous, and helps us notice what’s really going on underneath. On Christmas Eve that underlying reality is the story of the Incarnation — God become a baby for the sake of Love.
In our minds the story has the shine of a gold-foil Christmas card — the cold slab of a manger becomes a rustic crib, the aches of a young mother who gave birth after a long donkey ride becomes a pleasant journey, and the poverty of a straw-strewn birthing room is orchestrated with choirs of angels.
Both versions of the story — the nitty-gritty and the gold-foil — are true. In fact, the Christian life is founded on the truth that underneath ordinary life courses the Kingdom of God.
But most of the time who can pay attention? We are busy dressing in off-the-rack clothes, managing our ordinary careers, and doing the best we can with whatever marital or non-marital state we may find ourselves in at the moment. It is all very humdrum, most of the time. So we tune in to the heightened reality of our TVs to be reminded of the beauty and richness that lies under the surface of reality. It’s just more obvious when the lighting is perfect.
This Christmas, I wish you “perfect lighting” so you can enjoy a heightened dose of reality, right in the middle of your own life. Personally, that’s what I’m hoping for.
I hope we all find that reality in the crumpled wrapping paper, the misshapen Christmas cookies, the lights that blink out at the worst possible moment, and the spouse who wakes up with morning breath. Because coursing right underneath all of that, is the beautiful shining thing we call Love. It is the same Love which undergirds our Planet and each of our lives, every day. We just see it better when the lighting is perfect.
Adoration of the Shepherd: with the lamp, by Rembrandt