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Take a look at someone else's movie

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 15, 2002

Each of us is the star of a movie that the rest of us too often don't bother to watch.

That's why the reaction to Charles Bishop's suicide has been familiar and predictable.

It always is when someone steps out of the ordinariness of his life and into headlines. People who knew the person at various levels, family, school, friends, neighbors, offer descriptions that paint him or her -- usually him -- as many different people, none of whom could have committed whichever horrible thing he did. Yet the act was committed. He must have snapped.

And the search begins for the nudge that pushed him over the edge, the thing that makes the jump from normal to bizarre fathomable to the rest of us, who could never imagine ourselves doing the same thing. Rarely do we find anything that fits neatly into the little box of experiences on which we base our understanding of people and motives.

So with relief, we call them aberrations and pile them outside our box, outside the range of things we've experienced or ever will. We blame what happened on medications we won't ever take, because we're normal, or ostracism that we don't have to worry about, because we're normal.

Then we take a cautionary look around us to make sure the people in our lives are normal, too. We measure disgruntled co-workers. Is he feeling mistreated enough that he would bring a weapon to work and start shooting? Is her anger focused enough on one person that I wouldn't be a target? Has my child talked about death or been unusually quiet? Am I spending enough time with him?

The co-worker still dresses well, still shows up for work as usual and is even jovial at times. He's okay, we conclude.

The child isn't on suspicious medication, hasn't discussed the guest list for his funeral and fits the pattern of aberrant behavior that is normal for teenagers. He'll be okay, we sigh.

We conclude, sometimes with reservations, that we are safe, that the people around us are sufficiently normal that the next headline-grabbing massacre will happen somewhere else, among people who were less vigilant in spotting dangerous breaches of normality.

But how reliable are our assessments?

Well, had his nasty little habit of killing young women and girls not been discovered, Ted Bundy might be occupying political office today. He was that smart and charming -- according to most of the people who lived past their introduction to him.

Jeffrey MacDonald was such a loving husband, dedicated father and charismatic friend that supporters are still working to get him out of prison more than 30 years after he slaughtered his wife and children one night at Fort Bragg, N.C.

In the rush to hold our yardstick of normality up to the world and divine what falls within or outside its limits, it's easy to forget a basic truth: Each of us is the star of the movie we call our lives. Even the meekest, most self-deprecating, ugliest, poorest, least powerful person you know is the star of his own movie. It is his story line, his closeup the camera zooms in for.

In his movie, the rest of us are supporting actors and bit players, but most of us are extras, no matter how rich or powerful or important to mankind we think we are. In his movie, normal is measured with his yardstick.

That is why, to the degree possible, we need to slow our own reels and take a closer look at the movies playing around us.

If we become more attentive to the story lines of others, we reach a point where we don't have to see tears to know someone is crying, or blood to know someone is hurting. Watch others' movies and you begin to understand that happiness comes in a variety of packages and all of them aren't wrapped in expensive ribbons in waterfront homes.

Watch the movies of others and you understand with humility that they will go on after yours ends. Search the story lines of other people's movies and you will often enrich your own role in them.

But we will probably continue to be satisfied with just reading the reviews of lives that end as Charles Bishop's did. They will make us feel safe again because they will show that Charles Bishop was different from us.

But that security is built of crepe paper and bubble gum: Charles Bishop was no different from "us" than we are from each other.

That doesn't mean one of us is going to crawl into an airplane and aim it at a tall building. But it might. It doesn't mean that one of us is going to go on a killing spree. But it might. It doesn't mean that one of us is going to turn his former place of work into a shooting gallery. But it might.

It simply means that we don't know.

Chances are our ignorance won't matter. At least not in a way that makes the paper. Chances are no one will die because we didn't notice him when he passed, or didn't see beyond the tattered clothes she wore or the Mercedes she drove.

There's no way to know what will result as our lives intersect with others. But it's good to remember that we're walking across a scene where someone else is the star.

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