It happens all the time: A successful film hits theaters and takes the box office by storm. Everyone starts raving about it, and cries of, “You haven’t seen it yet?!” can be heard at water coolers everywhere. News comes out that the movie broke a few records and is set to make the studio a boatload of cash. And then someone inevitably makes the proclamation, “We’ve got to make a sequel to this!”
But the idea of a sequel comes with a big set of issues. How does one follow up something so successful? How can a creator make a film that measures up to the quality of an original idea with a concept that is in and of itself unoriginal? How can they remain true to the heart of the first film without repeating the same formula and thus becoming redundant? Therein lies the problem with sequels.
I’m not saying sequels can’t be successful, or that there’s no right way to do them. I’m simply saying that they’re hard and often underwhelming. Making a follow-up that is both groundbreaking and true to the original is a difficult thing to do.
I can sort of relate to that predicament right now in my own creative endeavors. You see, 2017 was a great year for the blog. Last year, I started writing on a regular basis again and put out articles on some topics that I’d been considering for a long, long time. Looking back on some of my favorite posts over that time, I started to wonder, “How am I ever going to follow this up in 2018?”
And really, that’s the situation I find myself in with my life as a whole. I’m sensitive to the fact that 2017 was difficult for a lot of people for a lot of reasons, but for me personally, it was sort of a banner year. I worked my first year in full-time ministry, at my dream job no less. I graduated from seminary. I worked through some personal obstacles and discovered the joys of living without anxiety. And I finished out the year spending time with the greatest friends, family, and girlfriend I could ever ask for. How could anything that comes after be any better than that?
When we find ourselves asking these questions, whether it be about a creative project or something in our personal lives, it can feel debilitating. It seems like there’s no way to do better than before, so why even try? One of my biggest fears—and I think one of the most fundamental fears of human existence—is peaking. What if we’ve already reached our highest point, and it’s all just downhill from here? It can be enough to make one want to give up altogether.
Or if it doesn’t make you want to give up, it might force you to cling to the past. Isn’t that why we often hate sequel films? They can get so focused on recreating the original that they end up telling the exact same story. That’s a natural temptation in life, too. If something worked before, we may as well try it again and hope that it turns out as well as it did in the past. But the thing is that doing the same thing over and over eventually gets old. You wouldn’t want to read blog posts about the same topics over and over, would you? I certainly wouldn’t.
Alternatively, one might be tempted to go in the opposite direction, throw out the whole thing, and start new. Forget the original and come up with a new idea that happens to share some of the same names and places. Completely change everything in response to a new situation. But is that really a sequel? That’s really more of a new thing in and of itself. And while starting over is sometimes necessary, it’s usually a lot more meaningful (and a lot easier!) to start with what you’ve got and work from there.
So there must be another way. A way to make a sequel that doesn’t break from the original but doesn’t just repeat the same formula either. And I think this is the key: maintaining what’s central to the thing while recognizing that aspects of it will have to change in response to new circumstances. That’s why series like Star Wars and Toy Story have been able to last for so long (and will continue to do so). They have a core identity that never changes, but they also adapt to new cultural circumstances and shifts in their audience in order to stay relevant while maintaining the heart of the original.
And that’s what we’re called to do in life, too. We can’t keep doing the same thing. Life is a series of events and follow-ups to those events. If we want to follow them up well, we have to consider the good stuff, find what’s central to it, and hold on to that while letting go of the parts that need to change as time goes on. This is what makes a great sequel in film, in writing, and in life.
So that’s what I’m going to try to do with the blog this year. There are certain elements that are core to what I do here: Compassion. Faith. My personal experiences. But there are lots of pieces, like the topics themselves, that will change in response to contemporary circumstances. I have an endless source of topic ideas because the world around me is always changing. One thing that won’t change, though, is me sharing my honest, deep reflections on current issues in light of everything I’ve learned and seen. That’s what this blog is ultimately about, and that’s what I’m doubling down on as I try to follow up a great year of writing with another one.
And that’s what I’m doing in my life, too. There are core things about me and my approach to life that won’t change. But the circumstances are inevitably going to change, and I’m ready for it. By staying true to what’s central to my identity while letting go of the thoughts and habits that were only necessary for a time, I think I can make this year a fitting sequel to the last. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it might even be better.
This process looks slightly different for everyone, but I’d encourage you to do the same. Whether last year was a big hit for you or more of a disappointment, you can follow it up with one that surpasses what came before it. By practicing stability in who we are while adjusting the nonessentials to fit whatever we’re facing right now, we can each create a sequel worth living. And that’s my hope for each and every one of us this year.