Sometimes, late at night, visited by dread and shame... I lie in bed and think of somebody else's life. I imagine the love that they're getting... and the relief that comes from being really known. The private pleasure they share. The friends they have, and the pressures they don't. Their sense of importance... the satisfactions of their work. I imagine how fulfilled they are... how rich their life is. And in these moments, I feel empty and wanting. (Episode 2.3)
Are you feeling Zen? The short-lived HBO series, Enlightened, plays with the notion of inner peace and illuminates the very idea of enlightenment. The series begins with a woman scorned and losing control over her life. The viewer is simultaneously meant to feel sorry for the lead character, Amy Jellicoe (played by Laura Dern), and uncomfortable with how she reflects her crumbling world onto those around her. You can’t help but laugh nervously as a mascara streaked Amy yells at her boss, “I’m gonna kill you, motherfucker,” all as she tries to pry open a closing elevator door. Then, after some time in Hawaii at a rehab center dealing with her anger management issues, among other problems, a new Amy returns to reclaim her old job. She wants to do it better, as a more conscious, self-aware, empathetic, and Zen individual. Melissa Maerz for Entertainment Weekly wrote this on Amy’s return to work:
There’s just one small problem. When she returns, her company, Abaddon, demotes her again, to some data processing center for misfit employees. (It’s fitting that, in Greek mythology, Abaddon is an underworld for lost souls; in Enlightened, the data processing center is located on the sub-basement floor “H,” possibly for Hell.) Plus, Amy’s still a few rage-aholic meltdowns away from achieving oneness with humanity.
When confronted by a coworker about her past meltdown, she quickly replies, “I wasn’t mentally ill, ok? I was just fucking stressed out.” (Episode 1.2) Amy is her own worst enemy on her path to enlightenment, but it is her path to this mythical and puzzling state that I see as the heart of this show, even as a working definition of enlightenment.
One of her coworkers (and the co-series creator, along with Dern, Mike White) plays the character of Tyler, "[A] solitary, socially inept computer programmer, Mr. White makes such exquisite use of silence that he almost steals the show from actors with meatier roles, including Luke Wilson as Amy’s stoner ex-husband, Levi.” Tyler is Amy’s sounding board for much of the show. He’s the one that listens to her most often – even when she offers little in return – because he is a man so used to receiving so little that any attention from Amy is seen as a gift. Tyler is a ghost in this world – he describes himself this way in voiceover in Season 2 – and is someone Amy pities, instead of empathising with.
Amy Jellicoe, unlike Tyler, is overwhelming and overbearing almost all of the time; whether she’s trying to help everyone else find bliss, forcing them to change their ways, righting the wrongs of injustices, or settling some of her own demons down. In one of several moments of reflection on her ex-husband, Amy says in a voiceover in Episode Four of Season One:
You can try to escape the story of your life. But you can't. It happened. The baby died. The dog died. The heart broke. I knew you when you were young. I know your heart broke, too. I will know you when we are both old. And maybe wise. I hope wise. I know you now. Your story. Mine isn't the one I would have chosen in the beginning. But I'll take it. It is my story. It's only mine. And it's not over. There's time. There is time. There's so much time.
In context, in this moment, she only sees the pain that his drug use causes her. It’s a completely understandable response, especially as a contributing factor to the rupture of their marriage, but it’s also the drug use that causes her to lose sight of the person in front of her.
The show only lasted two seasons, but it has left its mark on me. I have returned to the show twice more to watch it through, the story of Amy and her loved ones, her goal later in the series of taking on corporate America’s greed and the company she worked for, and of finding balance with one’s life. The passionate monologues alone are enough cause to revisit this painfully-revealing show. Amy is like a beacon that will show you the best and worst parts of yourself whether you want her to or not. It is her journey that has caused me to alter my own preconceptions of what enlightenment means. Before, I imagined a state of peace, of zen, and of understanding. Now I see something much more complex. Perhaps that is also why the show ended so quickly. Enlightened made you evaluate yourself in a way that a show like Game of Thrones never could – because it is deeply rooted in our world. Amy makes you cringe as she struggles with work, with family, with herself, with everyday modern (western) life. Game of Thrones makes you cringe from the gore and sexual violence.
Enlightened is an example of the notion that enlightenment, by definition, is not about finding peace, but about finding empathy. Empathy is not a peaceful feeling at all, it is chaotic because it involves others’ emotional well-being that can influence your own. Empathy in practice is within our control, empathy in action is beyond our control. It is the difference between practicing what you preach and simply preaching. Amy grapples with her own insecurities, her own faults, her anger, and uses what she has learned to help others. By trying to find herself, she finds the capacity to empathize with others in a more meaningful manner. To see beyond her own self. She doesn’t do it gracefully, and right up until the end of the show she makes poor choices. If there is anything that Enlightened has taught me, it is that there is so much time to work on it.
Sometimes I think about someone else's life. I imagine all the love they do not have. I see the passion that's missing. The friends they don't know. And the awful pressures that crush them. In those moments I realize how much I have, and how much I have to give. (Episode 2.3)