Game of Thrones and the Choices that Form Us


I just finished watching the Game of Thrones series finale. I’m sure a bunch of you did, too. Probably another group of you have never watched a single episode and it’s near-miraculous that you’re reading this now. I’ve been reflecting on life a little recently (new for me, I know), and I’m going to see if I can tie those reflections in with some thoughts on the series.

Today I met with a friend, Annie, who is starting the journey to become a pastor. We talked about her upcoming first funeral, for which she is preparing a eulogy. My first funeral was for my father. Talking with Annie reminded me how much pastoral ministry is pouring oneself into small things for people, believing that your efforts can make a difference. Little choices, every day.

The genius of Game of Thrones, if you watched it, was seeing characters grow and change, or be challenged and refuse to change, or–the show’s signature move–be in the midst of growing and changing and then BAM! Dead.

Theon Greyjoy. Consider his character arc over the course of GOT, from his introduction in Winterfell. Think of when Yara came to rescue him. Or how he fought his way back from being shattered into Reek when he chose to rescue Sansa and help her escape.

Arya’s character almost defies tracking. You can see the glimpses of who she will be and yet you can’t imagine how far she will travel or how fully she will transform and embody that fighter. When she leaves the House of Black and White, when she rejects Gendry’s proposal, when she sails west of Westeros, she leaves behind lesser versions of herself to seek something more. Yet it’s almost the seeking itself that gives her meaning. In one sense, she is the greatest hero of the Seven Kingdoms, but she finds no place to stay and be, no home, no rest anywhere. She had her list and we might have thought her list forced her to keep moving, but I think the forces moving her became deeper than that and the list was after all just a manifestation of who she had become. When The Hound convinced her not to pursue Cersei any longer, it was one of the great moments of the show; he demanded that she see the end result of the road she was taking–him–and she chose another path. One episode from the end and she still changed.

Cersei, in contrast, had opportunity after opportunity to change and refused. She could have let herself become someone other than ruthless and utterly monomaniacal. In that sense, Daenerys spoke the truth: it was Cersei who forced what happened to King’s Landing (while in another sense, Daenerys had her moment of choice as to who she would become with devastating consequences for nearly everyone…including herself).

I could easily go on with character comparisons: Ramsay Bolton would not change; Jaime Lannister definitely did change, substantially, and then in the end…; Bran, oh Bran, we’re not even sure what you are by the end, but whatever that might be, you’re the mystic King. That’s quite a transformation.

Okay, here comes my personal reflection: I think we make big plans and imagine that life runs linearly, but much of the time we are deluding ourselves and the course of life runs according to our small decisions when we choose, or refuse, to change. When we have these long-term, overarching plans and goals for our lives, we subsume all of our other decisions to follow those bottom lines. Well, so did Cersei. I know, that’s about the nastiest example one could find. But think about this: her claim was “My family comes first.”

We have small opportunities for kindness or courage every day but we disregard them because we have our eyes on some imagined bigger picture. I’m not suggesting we ditch all plans for career and child-rearing and retirement. I am telling you two things:

First, who we are is more important than how those big plans go. There’s a false view that if you make the big choices well, the little ones will take care of themselves. That is brought to you by the folks who told you the end justifies the means and, possibly, the ones who tried to sell you on trickle-down economics. In narrative theology, who we are is the composite picture of all those small, daily, hour-by-hour choices. Making the small choices well transforms us into becoming the people who make the big choices well. Learning grace when we fail and sin, learning compassion when we recognize our failures and sins in others, transforms us, not presto change-o! but steadily. Jesus makes us more like him through our good and bad choices, when we respond in humility and learn.

Second, quoting C.S. Lewis:

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination. This at least is what I see at moments of insight: but it’s hard to remember it all the time.

I love this: “what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s imagination.” Why? Because that isn’t the life you’re living nor ever will live. The life you’re living, and I’m living, those are made up of unplanned interruptions, from locking my keys in the car to having my son say, “Hey, Dad, let’s play HORSE.” I was just talking with a friend today about how we’re both increasingly aware that we’ve been imagining that we will do things “eventually” or “when things come together.” So we imagine those are the things we will do and we imagine circumstances will change so that we will be able to do them. None of that is actually true today, but somehow we imagine that’s who we really are and today is just a temporary delay in getting there.

Who you are today is who you are and if you know that needs to change, in about three minutes you’ll get an opportunity to start. Your first choice will be whether you recognize that small choice as that opportunity or disregard it because you’re waiting for something else, something bigger, something “real”…that likely will never come.

Over eight seasons of Game of Thrones, we saw characters faced with both small and enormous decisions. Often the smaller ones set them on the path where they would face the monumental ones. The show is big and dramatic and exciting and has dragons, so we find its action satisfying, but it’s also a mirror that we can choose to look in if we’re willing. Cowardly people can become brave (Samwell) and heartless people can develop compassion (Jaime? or Jorah?), while wise people can become fools and then, perhaps, grow wiser (Tyrion), and if you won’t step back and see where you’ve made mistakes…if you convince yourself that you see good and bad clearer than anyone else and you alone are fit for that judgment…you know how that comes out.

My conversation with Annie about death and what we say in remembrance reminded me that we get these choices for a finite time. We don’t know how many seasons or episodes, but in the moment it feels like we’ll always have more…and then in that moment, it’s done and we have no more choices. From that perspective, how will I respond to choices I get today?

One thought on “Game of Thrones and the Choices that Form Us

  1. Beverlee Paine

    There are so many thought provoking lines in your reflections that are nuggets of wisdom.

    I’m one of those who has never watched Game of Thrones and who faithfully reads your blog – how about that!
    My kids, though, are avid watchers, so I am forwarding your thoughts to them.

    Thanks, Mike. Love you!

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