At the opening of the movie Avatar, Jake Sully has suffered a severe spinal chord injury that leaves him a paraplegic. No longer able to perform as a combat marine, and because the military won’t pay for an operation to restore the use of his legs — that is, to return him to his former self — Jake volunteers for a specialized military mission to the planet Pandora.
Through the miracle of medical technology, he learns to psychically link with and inhabit an “avatar” or alternative physical self on that planet. In contrast to his paraplegic self, this avatar is healthy, fit and stands ten feet tall, with enormous physical prowess and sensory capabilities beyond those of humans.
Embodying this avatar allows Jake not only to regain the functions he lost but also to surpass his human potential. His experience on Pandora ultimately proves to be more real, more meaningful to him than his actual life; at the movie’s end, he finds a way to transcend his human physical damage and move permanently to the realm of his superior Na’vi self.
This story perfectly embodies a dynamic I’ve seen with many clients, where they feel themselves to be so damaged, so filled with shame that they long to escape into the world of fantasy and become another person entirely.
It’s a particular instance of the dynamic I discussed in a post on my ‘After Psychotherapy’ site, about hopeless problems and perfect answers. In these cases, avoidance of authentic, realistic relationships is strong; instead, they wish for a perfect relationship with an idealized partner. The Internet has enabled many people to pursue and act out this fantasy — in virtual form, of course, and for a limited time only.
Many video games involve selecting your own “avatar” as a prelude to entering the game world. Choice of that avatar and a “handle” are important for establishing a new virtual identity. Now that we have online gaming communities such as X Box live, where friends and strangers connect to play video games together in real time, it has become increasingly possible to occupy an online persona distinct from and superior to your ordinary self and to inhabit, at least for a time, another more interesting world.
Is this something that appeals to you? Do you want to transcend your ordinary damaged self and become Intrepid Warrior or Mystic Eagle rather than everyday you?
In a less pronounced way, making new friends or beginning a new relationship offers the same possibility. For some of us, there’s the recurring hope that we can start over, be somebody new and improved in this new connection.
It’s a kind of avoidance, really; until you’re ready to be the real you in a relationship, with all your quirks and difficulties, it won’t be authentic. Many people are forever hoping that they can attain their Na’vi ideal self, if only the right relationship comes along.
(Note: A longer version of this post with a clinical illustration can be found here on ‘After Psychotherapy.’ And by the way, I loved ‘Avatar’; my observations here are in no way intended as a criticism of the film.)