In the Third Act of a movie, the hero comes back from his lowest. In screenwriting we call this lowest moment the “all is lost” or “the moment closest to death.” It denotes the moment, at the end of Act Two, when the protagonist has been bested, it seems, by his enemies and by circumstance. He’s fought the good fight and lost.
Any good life has low moments like these. They’re the moments that make us. The moments that force us to dig deep and find depths of character that we may not even know we have. But necessity is the mother of invention, no?
When push comes to shove and the rubber meets the road, we find out what we’re really made of — or what we’re really made of now, after we’ve stretched and grown into a mature and powerful version of ourselves. It’s the work of adulthood to take shape, to become, to take the raw material of our fate and make from it a destiny.
Act Two is where we become an adult. It’s where life shows us what it’s really made of, so that we can find out what we are made from.
We aren’t what we think. We are bigger and more luminous than we might at first have imagined. But finding “the luminous within” isn’t easy. The things that try us also make us, but if we don’t know that this is how it goes — if we don’t understand that it is through adversity that we become — then we will turn away from our trials, and shrink back from our suffering, and we will miss our golden opportunity.
Like Act Two in a movie, Act Two in our lives acts upon us like a philosophers’ stone, turning our lump-of-coal selves into gold. You’ll recall the philosopher’s stone, that great substance of alchemical legend that turns base metals into gold. Also so-called the elixir of life, the philosopher’s stone is the central symbol in the mystical alchemical arts. It symbolized perfection, enlightenment, heavenly bliss! Efforts to attain the philosophers’ stone were known as the Magnum Opus — the Great Work. Our lives, too, are the Great Work. This world we live in, and the world we are making with the lives that we live, it is the Great Work also. And so it matters whether we rise to the challenge of the Second Act and become the people we must be for the battle that can lead us to victory in Act Three and carry us to the life that lies beyond, the life that we’re “awarded” or, rather, the life that we’ve earned, by daring to meet life head on, as it is.
The movies teach us that life isn’t meant to be a cake walk. It’s a lesson we’d do well to remember, if we’re raising children, or if we’re raising ourselves. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dr. Carol Dweck lays out the evidence that it’s not our innate abilities that determine our success in life, it’s our mindset, and it’s the “growth” mindset — the belief that we can get better, that we can overcome our challenges — that correlates with success. Act Two in a movie and in a life is all about overcoming challenges, and at the end of the act we are brought to our knees. This is where the magic occurs. This is where the lump of coal or the bit of lead is transmuted into gold. We arrive at Act Three on our knees. And then, we get up.
I love the anonymous quote that appears above (even if I am compelled to move that misplaced comma): “I honestly see no point in dwelling on what could have been. You either make it happen, or you simply chase a greater opportunity.” This captures perfectly the energy we should bring to our Act Three. We may have lost things. We may have failed. We may have experienced irredeemable tragedy and it may have broken us and brought us to our knees. The lowest possible moment, the all is lost, the moment closest to death.
But we are here. Life may have taken the life we thought we’d have — and some of us more than others — but it has left us with a life that is still full of possibility. No use lamenting what might have been. Either we could make the “it” of our imagining happen, or we could not. No shame in the game either way.
Sometimes the thing we pursue isn’t the thing we are meant for; we’ve aimed too low, or too much to the left or right. It’s easy enough to tell. If you keep hitting brick wall after brick wall, it’s time to move on, and to do it with confidence in who we now are.
The things that challenge us also shape us.
Let yourself be shaped.
The thing that might have been but isn’t, let it go. Chase the greater opportunity. Notice the signs.
I read a great piece the other day in the New York Times Magazine, an interview with the actor, playwright and screenwriter Tracy Letts, who’s August: Osage County won the Tony and was made into a movie that was brilliant and haunting but not so well received. He talked about starting out as a young man with an idea of celebrity. At 32, he moved to L.A., where he worked but at a level that didn’t fulfill his ambitions or make him happy. So four years later, he returned to Chicago. “I walked into that rehearsal room at Steppenwolf and felt completely at home,” he said. “I knew I was never going to make any money, but I’d be damned if I was going to spend my best, most creative years in Los Angeles waiting for the phone to ring. Who cares?” He continued, “The success of August changed a lot of things, but the reason it happened is that I was committed to the work, just getting the work done.”
That’s what chasing the greater opportunity looks like.
It looks like getting real honest with yourself about what you really want. It’s the classic, “what would you do if you didn’t think you would fail.” And then you do that, with force and commitment. You do it even if you’re bad at first, knowing that through sustained effort, you will get better, and you may even be great. You won’t know, though, until you try. The outer limits of your ability have to be tested.
People aren’t born great. Their greatness lies in their becoming. Act Three is where we test the outer limits of our ability. By then, we have been seasoned by life and we have the internal and external resources we need to fight the battle Act Three, which in the movies leads to triumph in the end.
For most of us, Act Three comes at midlife. It is very tempting to throw up our hands at this point. It’s the pessimist’s dilemma: do I believe the evidence of my lying eyes, or do I believe in the hidden possibility, the me that hasn’t been proven yet, the life I’m afraid to hope for less it elude me too?
Well, here’s the thing. Act Three is where the greater possibilities reside. If you give up now, just because you’re battered and bruised, you’ll miss out on the fruits, your journey will have been in vain.
I can’t promise you that you will reach your greater possibility, but isn’t it worth the try? This is your Magnum Opus, after all, this life. This is your Great Work. And so…
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Tags: Act Three, Act Two, Film Storytelling, TFRL, Tracy Letts