How I Found Healing and Relevance in “The Sopranos”: Top Ten Lessons About Being Human
First off, I am a psychologist, and I think way too much. Lately, I have been overthinking and drowning in feelings of despair as I observe our political and social climate in the United States. I am trying to understand what is happening and identify what I can do to change it.
In an attempt to distract myself from an ever-growing fascination with the news, I dove into Amazon Prime Video and found “The Sopranos.” I didn’t see the series when it ran on HBO, and my timing in watching it is superb.
At first, I found the show dark and depressing, but it is incredibly well-written and acted. The deeper human context, history, and personal conflicts associated with each character made the darkness more interesting. I became entranced with watching “The Sopranos” because I saw direct connections between the story and my ongoing concerns about society.
While academic psychological theories may explain some of my observations about incivility and discordant realities in society, it is the dramatization of human fault that has had a deeper impact upon me. “The Sopranos” gives a human story line to some of the most terrible things human beings do to one another. While there is no justification, seeing the dramatization has been healing for me in ways that I don’t yet fully understand. I know that it has made me muster a stronger fight against my own reductionistic tendencies.
While nothing in the show changed cultural observations that I find upsetting, I am leaning into them more. While I could watch it all again and probably get even more, here are my top 10 relevant lessons learned from “The Sopranos.” At first glance, the list may seem negative, but I believe there is comfort to be found in embracing the limits of being human.
1. We see what we want to see. Despite overwhelming evidence that contradicts our view of reality and the world, we distort facts to fit what we want to see. Carmella easily justifies and defends her view of Tony because if she accepts that he is a monster of a person, it means she is complicit. She is complicit by marrying him, by supporting him, and by enjoying the fruits of his maliciousness. If she knows he is vicious and immoral and yet sticks by him, what does that say about her? She must vehemently defend him at all costs in order to continue to see herself as innocent and well-meaning. Carmella is able to completely dissociate from the facts in order to maintain her world view. We all have this capacity.
2. We create stories to justify our own actions. We vilify people with whom we disagree to make ourselves feel better. When Tony wanted revenge or needed to justify his angry outbursts, he created emotional stories to validate his acting out. This allowed him to avoid responsibility for his actions and rationalize that he had no other choice. Pointing the finger at others should happen after we have pointed it at ourselves. It starts and ends with us. When we tell ourselves that bad acts are justified because the “other” side is worse, no one wins.
3. We can blame our parents for our dysfunction, but at some point, we have to take responsibility for being an asshole. All the time that Tony spends in therapy focused on his parents doesn’t change anything. Awareness is nothing without action. Chasing the “why” is sexy, but in the end, we remain in the same space. No matter what hand we are dealt, we get to decide how to play it. Perpetually blaming others is only a distraction.
4. We may repeat patterns of dysfunctional behavior even when we want to change. Despite years of psychotherapy and being made aware of his negative behavior patterns, Tony isn’t able to sustain change. There are many environmental forces that seek to keep us in current patterns (like maintaining a certain lifestyle; certain social networks), but change is hard. Change involves more than knowing “why” and being enlightened. Change involves hard work and pain. It involves long-term commitment and personal investment. The lightbulb doesn’t just go off, and we’re done — despite how tantalizing this may seem.
5. We are all susceptible to the trappings of power, and power brings out the worst in people. Tony starts out a little more level-headed about using his power, but this changes. His life become about keeping power. Tony comes to see power as a burden; it changes people; it creates paranoia; and once you have it, you become obsessed with how to keep it. The quest for power has the potential to overtake one’s life entirely.
6. We all have the capacity for darkness. I found myself feeling almost hopeful about every character at some point in the series only to be let down by a return to dark behavior. We all have a shadow, a dark side, and it is the people who deny this who are the most dangerous. It is important to acknowledge and accept this about being human so that it doesn’t become a darker force in our lives.
7. Therapy isn’t helpful if it is used as a feel-good tool. This drove me crazy in the show. I wanted Dr. Melfi to tell Tony straight out that he was acting like a dirt bag. She held back, going for a stance of objectivity despite feelings of horror and disgust. This isn’t therapy. Therapy is supposed to be painful, and isn’t a fix if one isn’t willing to face painful truths and embrace change. If used in this way, therapy becomes another excuse, justification, or support of bad choices.
8. Sometimes what we fear or hate most we enact in our own lives. Tony seems obsessed with the idea that entitlement is bad. He verbalizes that people need to work for rewards, yet his whole life is built upon taking from others. Tony also raised two entitled children who manipulate him with guilt. This series is brimming with themes of hypocrisy, which is such a part of human nature. We all have the capacity to be so caught up in certain issues that we fail to see how we are enacting those same issues in our lives. This has been the most singularly impactful theme of the show for me. It is what I find so disturbing about our current culture. After seeing the show, it has not become any less scary or repulsive to me, but I can accept it more as a human limitation.
9. We all have stereotypes that serve to elevate our own cultural status. Tony and his friends defend Italian culture, bemoaning discrimination and stereotypes. At the same time, they engage in the same type of racist thoughts, words, and deeds against others with no insight into the dissonance. It seems that humans have always felt the need to push others down in order to lift themselves up. We are expanding this tendency by including political labels and stereotypes in an escalated us vs. them war.
10. Humans are incredibly complex. While most people don’t engage in criminal, violent, or exploitative behavior, we all have that capacity. We have the capacity to engage in repeated dysfunctional behavior and to deny certain truths that don’t fit our preferred view of the world. We have the capacity to create enemies of those who disagree with us. While I may not like this, being reminded of it in such a dramatic way has made a difference in how I accept and understand the world we live in. I was creating my own pain through non-acceptance and denial. I was searching for some sort of deeper, more palatable explanation (the sexy why) which wasn’t working. As humans, we’re messed up and wonderful all at the same time. While there is much I don’t like, there is much more that I do. “The Sopranos” reminded me that there is always a story that I don’t know, and when we try to reduce others down to a label or stereotype, we lose the opportunity for deeper understanding and connection. I cannot say that I found answers to actual problems, but I can say that I remain engaged and interested. I am listening and practicing self-awareness. I also hold that perpetual hope for change.