If life imitates art, then collectively, we have what David Mamet would call an Act Two problem, which is so generic it has its own joke:
A couple of guys are sitting around talking. One says, “How’s the play going?” The other says, “I’m having second act problems.” Everybody laughs. “Of course you’re having second act problems!”
In other words, it’s easy to start something and it’s easy to finish, but it’s a slog to get through what’s in between.
In art, Act One always contains an inciting incident which propels the protagonist on a journey of some kind. The hero makes a choice… to leave somewhere, to achieve something, to become someone different.
Act Two contains multiple obstacles, challenges and disappointments that have to be overcome, including massive amounts of self-doubt. Towards the end of Act Two, the hero wonders whether it was a good idea to even begin the journey.
Act Three contains a final battle in which the hero wins the struggle — mentally, emotionally or physically. He is able to do this because of the change that has occurred inside him during Act Two… he has gone from shy to courageous, or from arrogant to humble, or from naïve to wise.
Robert McKee, the story guru, goes as far as to say that if there is no change in value between Act One and Act Three, then you haven’t got a story… or you haven’t got a story worth telling.
Humans are on a journey to higher consciousness. Looking around at the evidence of greed and destruction that surround us, it doesn’t look that way, but at least we’re no longer burning women at the stake for having an opinion or sacrificing children to make it rain. On the other hand, we definitely need to speed things up if we want humanity to survive.
This being the case, we need to sort out our Act Two problems.
For many people, their inciting incident involved a loss of health, job, money, a divorce, betrayal or near death experience. This propelled them on a journey to follow their heart, to search for work that has more meaning and purpose, to attract abundance and a soul mate. All good so far… then things come unstuck, because as Robert McKee says, the value has to change.
This requires hard work, because although we want change, we hate being changed. We’d rather just add some fancy new branding to our old life, and call it magical. We’d rather buy an overnight success program, petition a fairy godmother, or enlist the services of a mafia godfather.
But Act Two is a constant and arduous battle of ups and downs. Act Two requires discipline, commitment and faith. This is what creates the necessary inner alchemy that allows us to succeed in Act Three.
A lot of people, particularly in the self-help community, solve the Act Two problem by simply going back to Act One, where they can stay with their inciting incident. There is a lot of nostalgia around the “epiphany” moment. “This is what happened to me in the past, and this is why I am here talking to you now.” They repeat this story endlessly, as if watching replays of their favourite sit com.
Gaining meaning and purpose from your inciting incident, rather than from the way you got through Act Two, doesn’t move the story on. It’s no wonder we never get to Act Three.
Other people solve the dilemma by leapfrogging over Act Two to get to the final battle of Act Three. They get very military in their terminology as they engage in a war on poverty, war on drugs, war on terror, war on crime, war on racism. These are all un-winnable wars with a bunch of sequels that get weaker and more unbelievable.
Fighting drugs or crime doesn’t work. Addiction, injustice, neediness, neglect, heartbreak, loneliness — these are the values that need to be addressed and transformed. These are all Act Two problems.
Our reluctance in dealing with these issues pushes into polarized, stupid conversations that don’t solve anything. They push us into senseless wars and absurd legislation.
Both these scenarios (go back to Act One/leapfrog to Act Three) make for a totally uninspiring story… a never-ending story of winners and losers. A story full of inciting incidents and senseless battles (that are never final), where the Act Two space is filled with pointless drama.
Capitalism is a story of winners and losers. Take a risk, place your bets, win or lose. Exciting! The game was up in 2008 when bankers placed their bets, lost, and instead of facing the consequences, they were just given more money to play with. That’s when we realized the game was rigged… they couldn’t lose. It’s a crap story of a crapshoot.
We’re at a choice point in history. We could continue this never-ending story. Or we could collaborate and create a whole new genre. The self-help industry has become a sentimental cliché… Politicians and businessmen are sticking to the same old script.
Perhaps we need a really good playwright.
Eleanor O’Rourke is a writer and creativity coach, specializing in creative blocks. She is the author of 40 Days 40 Nights: One Woman’s Quest to Reclaim her Creative Mojo, Breakdown: A Rebel’s Take on Depression, and The Freedom Project: How To Find Contentment in a Crazy World.
She believes that creativity is the birthright of every individual, and that if we don’t collectively learn to tap into that, the human species will have a tricky time evolving to the next level