Sunday, 24 February 2013

Second Acts

I’m working my way through the whole of The Wire on a DVD box set. I know, I know, I’m ten years behind the times. But better late than never, and I’m loving it. 

In Season Two, D’Angelo Barksdale is on a long prison sentence for drug dealing. In a reading group discussion he quotes Scott Fitzgerald’s famous statement ‘There are no second acts in American lives’. D’Angelo reckons this means we only get one chance at living our lives[1]. Whatever role we find ourselves in is the role we are stuck with. We can try to change things, to break out and live differently, but we can’t do it. We are trapped. 

There is certainly no second act for D’Angelo, who is killed a few days later.  Nor for most of the characters in The Wire, whether drug dealers, trade unionists or police. Attempts to make big changes are invariably doomed to failure, death or disaster.   

It’s like a classical Greek drama, where human beings are playthings at the mercy of capricious, unpredictable gods.  We have the illusion of free will, but in reality our lives are predetermined, chosen for us and directed by forces beyond our control. So we’d better just accept our lot and make the best of a bad job.

Hang on a minute....

Well no, actually. No way. Absolutely not.

Great TV, great drama, but I refuse to accept this pessimistic view of the world.

We are persons with the capacity to lead our own lives. We are not passive victims of fate or circumstance. We have choices. We can do things differently.  Transformation is possible. Think Nelson Mandela.

Even if we’ve made a complete pig’s ear of our life up to this point, even if we’ve had a very rough deal until now, it is possible to turn things around.  We can have second (and even third and fourth) acts.

Last week Helen (not her real name) came to see me in my surgery. It was the first time we’d met for more than ten years, as she’d move away from our area for a while.  Back then she was dependent on alcohol and heroin, and had problems with hepatitis. She was heading rapidly downhill. But no longer. Helen’s off all that stuff now. She’s back in control of her life, caring for her teenage daughter and half way through a degree in sociology. 

For lots of people retirement is a great time to start over. Second act, third age - it’s the same thing. Once earning our living is no longer necessary we have a chance to try something we’ve always wanted to do. We can reinvent ourselves.

I wonder what I’ll do next.

What do you think?  Are we stuck with what we’ve got, or can we change things around? Have you had a second act?  Or are you planning one?