On the Ending of The Sopranos

I finally did it. I finished The Sopranos.

Over nine months and eighty-six episodes, I watched The Sopranos awestruck and horrified. And this weekend, I watched with curiosity at how I would react to the infamous last scene. The diner. Don’t Stop Believin’. The cut to black. The big question: does Tony Soprano live?

Having finished, what I feel certain of is this: the question misses the entire point entirely. It doesn’t matter whether he lives or dies in the diner. The ambiguity is the purpose. Life happens to us. It seems random, complicated, and occasionally cruel. The meaning of it does not stem from the resume of events A through Z. The meaning is from our examination of our internal purpose and our sense of how to live a good life.

What I loved the most about the show is that it’s not spoilable. To be precise, I mean that knowing what happens does not affect the enjoyment of what you see on screen. What happens is besides the point. For example, great things can happen. Tony can survive a bullet wound, Carmela can feel artistically moved in Paris. Christopher can get his movie produced. But without an inner compass, these fleeting moments inevitably pass and resentment at the monotonous milieu sets in. Life gets boring again. Buying, gambling, conquering, killing, controlling feel needed to mask the untamed internal chaos and guilt. Whether through repeated plot points, dream sequences, and elliptical therapy sessions, the creators tell us over and over again: look at the spiritual flame of these characters and see how it dims.

Whether Tony Soprano dies is besides the point because he and the characters of The Sopranos have already experienced a spiritual death and choose to remain there. They’ve resigned themselves to a false steady state where the center, as Keats said, cannot hold. While Tony has bested everyone at the table, but he knows he cannot cash in his chips.

Our reaction to the ending says nothing about what happens to Tony and everything about our relationship to the events in our own lives. When the show cuts to black, it’s us we see on that blank screen. The story of the Sopranos has ended. We’ve seen how not to live a life.

Now, what will we do?

The Problem is the Solution

There’s nothing more natural than being quick to judge others, especially when they make a mistake or do something we don’t approve of. How could you do this?! What were you thinking!? This is all your fault!

But behind every frustrating act is an opportunity to learn.

If you’re a deli owner, and you see a crowd of people bunched up at the check-out area, it’s easy to judge them for not forming a straight line. Or you can see this as evidence that your store was unclear about where to stand. The customers are pointing out what you need to improve, whether it’s marking the floor or changing the checkout location.

If you’re a lawyer and a client isn’t listening to you, you can yell at them for being irrational and foolish. But the client is really telling you to speak more clearly. Behavior that causes anger and frustration is not evidence of something wrong, it’s pointing to something right — a solution hiding in plain sight.

The truth is this: everyone does things for a reason. We can either judge them for that or take it as an opportunity to learn and empathize.

Actions that offend us are often solutions to deeper problems.

Take drugs or alcohol. For many, drugs are not the problem. Using is a solution to a deeper problem for which a temporary high may appear to be the only answer. The solution is no doubt imperfect, but simply criticizing the behavior masks vital lessons for addressing the root cause problems, like depression or joblessness.

Take sleepy teenagers. Teenagers who miss the school bus because they slept through their alarms are easy to paint as lazy. But they’re not. Their bodies are properly responding to something they need more than anything: sleep. Sleep is critical and their craving for more is healthy to functioning well intellectually. Many teenagers snooze their alarms, sleep during first period, and nod off in math class. Calling them lazy feels natural, but it doesn’t help. This “problem” holds solutions to the real root issues, like changing the school day or norms around napping.

It’s easier to get mad than to get curious. But I’m learning to hold my tongue and think, how interesting, the world is telling me something.

On Teaching

Yoga has always intimidated me. Flexible, I am not. Touching my toes has meant settling for just above my knees. And the thought of going to a group yoga class is still scary.

But Yoga with Adriene has been a revelation. Adriene Mishler is a YouTuber, whose 30-day guided yoga lessons have nourished my mind, body, and soul and presented me the building blocks for better balance on and off the mat.

Each day, I’ve worked hard to fit in the daily practice of yoga, but anxious questions often fill my mind: What if I don’t have the time? What if I miss a day?

Oh, how I’ve missed the point. The core of Adriene’s teaching lies not in each individual lesson, but in Day 30. While so many instructors rev up their spoken words per minute as high as their audiences allow, Adriene pulls back. She turns her microphone off. Day 30 is silent. And our inner teacher fills the space. Day 30 is to cultivate the teacher within us all.

At some point in our lives, our teachers leave us. And if we have not internalized their lessons, this fact can be devastating. The best teachers are reliable, but taken too far, great teaching can be a tenuous crutch. Many have felt the chaos that comes when the favorite teacher is out sick and the substitute covers and is disrespected. Order is removed, and gains are lost.

Day 30 reminds me that the purpose of teaching is to leave and have student rise without you. Teaching is what happens when you’re not with students. Their education is like a door. We can choose, paint, install, and display the door, but only the student can open it. And the moment they do, we cannot be there. It’s not for us. Teaching is about letting go.

On Cultivating an Inner Life

We marvel at the Apple
Appearance beautiful and evocative
Story biblical and epic

And that beauty is worth exploring
After acknowledging that
It’s all for the seeds