One of my favorite television shows right now is a Netflix original called “Bojack Horseman,” which centers around Bojack, a humanoid horse traversing life where humans and animals live one and the same. Bojack is a washed-up celebrity following his fame on a sitcom called “Horsin’ Around” and the ensuing years follow Bojack trying to recapture some of the heart, praise, and adoration he had in those years. In the process, Bojack hurts those he most cares about, ruins people’s lives, and alienates himself through self-sabotaging narcissism and drug abuse.
Even though Bojack is in many cases an irredeemable prick, he often has these epiphany’s of growth and change, sudden realizations that he can change everything around bad about himself, that one thought can change his entire being. We’re shown time and time again that this isn’t the case, and Bojack starts using these moments to excuse his borderline abusive behavior.
There is a particular quote by Bojack’s close friend Diane Nguyen that succinctly elaborates this thought, “There’s no deep down, I believe that all we are is what we do.”
In many cases “Bojack Horseman” is an outlier. Another example of this type of living is shown in the Adam Sandler movie “Uncut Gems.” Adam Sandler’s character shows nothing but selfish narcissism, always trying to win no matter the cost until he almost does. However, much of the media we consume shows characters that have one sudden re-awakening that drives them forward to change their lives, the cliches are everywhere. You can find those moments in movies that show characters stopping a spurned love interest seconds before they board a plane, you see it in sports movies where the team leader has a sudden moment of inspiration, and you see it in superhero movies after the hero is beaten down and largely left amongst their failures.
We have been taught and shown time and time again that a single thought can move mountains that one clear moment of inspiration can change everything when in reality it doesn’t offer much else than the aesthetic of change. Epiphany feels powerful, it feels meaningful, and feels like real, authentic growth, but is often short-lived. These moments act as little bundles of joy that provide us with purpose, drive, and then? Oftentimes nothing.
That aesthetic of change is everpresent in much of our society. An abusive parent can apologize, show massive guilt, act better for a while and then cycle back into old habits when complacency sets in.
More of this aesthetic can be seen in other mediums beyond shows and film, like the 1929 painting The Treachery of Images. The work, by Belgian painter Rene Magritte, depicts what appears to be a smoking pipe and the words, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which translates to “this is not a pipe.” The painting is often held up as a model of a post-modern line of thinking based around the purpose of aesthetics in modern society, and in many ways reflects the ways that short-lived epiphany projects into the real world. Many philosophers debate over the significance of the painting and what it says about our perception and what truly makes things what they are. The painting is nothing more than that, a painting, it is not a real, functional pipe but it may give someone the idea to make a pipe, and in the same way, epiphany is nothing more than short-lived inspiration but it may lay the groundwork to newer and deeper ideas.
In educational terms epiphany is generally regarded as a threshold concept, or a train of thought that can reframe and reshape prior knowledge but on its own is insignificant. Take for example the status of Superman’s secret identity as Clark Kent. Lois Lane, Clark’s long-time love interest and coworker learning about his secret would completely flip her perspective on its heel whereas John Doe in the middle of Russia couldn’t care less who Clark Kent is.
Many people end up resigned to their epiphanies. They are inspired for a moment and then when that moment passes and the dopamine surge is gone they return to normal, resigning to the standard. To climb up a mountain only to take the elevator down.