Yesterday I was on the train home and saw a lone sock on the tube floor. I suggested to my friend, an aspiring play write, that he write a story about a series of very ordinary happenings that led to the sock’s current position; maybe somebody was running late, and hurriedly put their baby’s sock (the sock was quite small) in their bag in a position such that it was vulnerable to falling out, which it did after another person (also hurrying) brushed passed.
Somehow, we posited that indeed most of life’s happenings are actually a similar sort of mundane sequences, hyperbolized by ‘protagonist syndrome’; a psychological phenomenon in which everyone sees themselves as the ‘main character’. We looked around the train and thought that it is very likely that every individual on the train thought of themselves in such a manner.
We further surmised that this led to a distinct lack of empathy towards one another. For example, when oneself is angry, the anger feels justified; there’s apparently reasons that warrant the anger. But when you see anger on another person, well, ‘they’re just in a mood’. Concern for the mental battles that they are fighting hardly cross our minds.
As to how ‘protagonist syndrome’ came about, having just watched a performance of the ‘Kite Runner’, I suggested it was popular culture. Most movies, dramas, videogames etc., feature a protagonist, who is special for x reason, and the entire story revolves around them; other’s emotions are only examined vis-à-vis the protagonists. Being constantly exposed to such entertainment has meant that protagonist syndrome is rampant.
Or maybe it’s the other way around; maybe society has contracted protagonist syndrome from another source, and that in turn is reflected in popular culture. What could that other source be? I think Liberalism, and more specifically, Individualism; the veneration of the self, the championing of what the individual wants to do above all else. Conceding the right of individual freedom, irrespective of whether this right is good or bad, has led to protagonist syndrome. How so? If an individual is to do what they want, then they attach a certain level of significance or authority to their whims, superior to any structure (such as religion) that would dictate their actions otherwise; hence the self as a dictator of actions is superior to anything else. Thus the individual becomes the protagonist by virtue of the significance they attach to their own desires.
I suppose the point is less to do with our lack of acknowledgement of life being normal and mundane happenings, but more to do with how we view other people’s lives in such a way, but never our own. Maybe a person just happening to bump into a future Nobel Prize Winner isn’t mundane or normal, but if that were to happen to ourselves, then it would seem to us as though the stars are aligning (metaphorically speaking) for a grander purpose. And perhaps they are; but we ought to have empathy that other people also feel that way, and that we aren’t the center of the universe.
One of the things I recently found very interesting in the Quran, was in Surah Yasin (and elsewhere in the Quran), in which Allah reminds us that many nations have perished before us. It’s striking really; we think Donald Trump, Brexit, Prevent, civil strife etc., are novel problems that we have only ever faced. But surely not, the Quran insists, over the course of history greater empires have risen, and have been ruined.
In sum, we should stop seeing ourselves as so special. We really are not, and the Quran makes a point to teach us that. We are slaves before Allah. In Surah Fatiha, Allah introduces himself as Lord of All Worlds. Not just us. We aren’t so special. The only significance and uniqueness we can really find is from Allah.
But such a mindset is very difficult to achieve.