We Are All Hamlet

I am an invisible man. – Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison found the strongest possible way to start his book.  It catches you immediately and stays with you as the thesis for the journey he is about to embark on with you.

It also stays with you and roils around in your brain asking you, “What do you think I mean?”  For me, it has always meant, no one sees you as who you are.  Everyone sees you as what they wish you to be.  Others view you as an empty vessel where they put all their fears and expectations.  Who you actually are does not matter to them, mostly because you do not matter to them.  You are simply a minor character in their life long story-arc.  You are little more than ticks and stereotyped traits.  You serve no purpose in their life other than to pass in and out of like a scent on a breeze pointing them to their destination.

Ellison’s main character ultimately goes mad struggling against the notion of his invisibility.  While this novel is a tour de force of the existential struggles of African-American men through the 20th century, the older you get the more you understand that it is actually the story of the existential struggle of all people of the 20th century.  We are all the Hamlet of our own story and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in almost everyone else’s.

We are all broken down into our easy to observe component parts for digestion by the rest of the world.  We all make snap judgments of people by the color of their skin, their haircut, their clothes, whether they wear glasses, etc.  To function during the day, we almost have to think of people as badly written characters.

We all know those characters in a bad television show/movie/book.  They are the ones that are little more than plot devices with heads and legs.  They are there simply to move the main character from point A to point B through a bundle of traits without adding anything to plot or overall point of the exercise.

We should strive to treat everyone we meet better than that.  After all, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern got their own Tom Stoppard play (and movie starring Gary Oldman and Tim Roth).   The play reverses the dynamic of Shakespeare’s best work by putting Hamlet in a secondary role appearing in our two protagonists lives to righteously muck things up.

The Invisible Man does for himself what Tom Stoppard does for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  He takes control of his life and ceases allowing himself to be used as a secondary character in other people’s narratives.  He also goes completely insane and lives underground in basically a cave filled with light bulbs, but I digress.

We should all do two things.  First, stop treating people you know you may never see again as if they are disposable.  Show a bit of empathy for others.  The sole reason for the existence of others in this world is not to move you from point A to point B.  Second, take control of your life and stop letting people put you into the box of their choosing.  Stop letting others tell you who you are.  Remember, however, the control without the empathy makes you an overbearing jerk.  One without the other is kind of how everyone else lives.

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