This is the third in a series of lessons drawn from individual characters in Supernatural. Unlike the two previous classes on Dean and John Winchester, this class draws its inspiration not from something intrinsic to the essential character of Sam, but from the primary lesson that Sam himself has learned over the past two seasons: that facts, knowledge, and belief matter, but that understanding changes everything.
Sam has changed dramatically from the young man we met in the pilot. Some of that change has been due to the extraordinary events he has experienced – suffering visions, reuniting with his brother Dean, losing Jess, feeling the stress of hunting, nearly losing Dean more than once, seeing his father die, fearing his own potential destiny, dying and coming back to life – but I would submit that the most profound changes have come about not through these events themselves, but because of what they have brought Sam to understand about others and about himself.
Sam has always had a very intellectual bent. Of the two brothers, he’s the researcher, the digger after knowledge and truth. Judging from what we know of his past – for example, that he was an honors student who won a free ride not only to college, but likely to law school as well – he always had a taste for learning and knowing things. Moreover, he had the confidence in himself to strike out on his own and build an independent life.
At the core of that self-confidence and independence was Sam’s belief both in himself and in his understanding of his family and the world around him. What the events of the past two seasons forced him to acknowledge, however, was that his knowledge was incomplete and imperfect, and that the more he learned, the more his understanding of reality changed, and that understanding in turn changed all of his perceptions and his priorities.
I’ve addressed aspects of this concept before, particularly in the class entitled Growing Up = Changing Perceptions. My point here is that we can all learn through Sam’s experience about the importance of not assuming that what we know is complete or necessarily correct, and about how essential it is to remain flexible and be ready to change our viewpoints and possibly our convictions as we learn that what we thought was true may actually be different from what we believed.
Take Sam’s attitudes regarding John, for example. When we met Sam, he thought he knew and understood his father; after all, he’d grown up watching and listening to the man. He knew that John was obsessed, autocratic, judgmental, demanding, and harsh, dedicated to the hunt and his revenge. All this, Sam knew; but he didn’t understand.
Understanding took assimilating many additional pieces of information, and experiencing his own taste of John’s pain through losing Jess. Understanding took Sam learning and appreciating that his father loved him (Phantom Traveler, Bugs, Shadow), and had done things not because he was unhappy or unsatisfied with Sam, but because he was afraid for him (Dead Man’s Blood). Understanding required that Sam gradually realize that John’s love for his sons so exceeded his drive for revenge that John had sacrificed himself and his means of revenge for Dean’s life, and that he had known what he intended and said nothing of it even when Sam had accused him otherwise. Understanding meant that Sam had to realize that he himself was much more like John than he had ever thought or believed, and that Dean was far more different from John than he had ever assumed or guessed. Understanding transformed Sam’s feelings for John from resentment and anger into grief and guilt, from rebellion into loss. Finally understanding John changed almost everything Sam thought he had known and felt about the man, and thus, about his own life.
Similarly, Sam always knew his brother, but never understood him until recently, and that understanding changed everything. Well, not everything, perhaps: love was always at the core of that relationship and so it remains, but the love is far deeper and stronger now for the understanding on Sam’s part. How little Sam truly understood Dean became apparent very early in season one; who could forget Sam’s wondering, Who are you, and what have you done with my brother? all the way back in Dead in the Water, when he couldn’t understand why Dean was so drawn to and protective of Lucas? Every new piece he acquired of the puzzle that assembled into Dean made Sam gradually reassess what he thought he knew. All his life before the first season began, younger brother Sam had accepted at face value the lie that was the façade of assurance and strength Dean always projected for his benefit. By the end of season two, Sam’s understanding had grown to the point where Dean couldn’t lie to him any more, not about what really matters: not about love, not about family, not about heart. Dean is still who he’s always been, with all his quirks, complexities, and essence; what’s changed is that Sam finally understands him, and now appreciates most of what he understands.
Sam’s understanding of himself is still imperfect and incomplete, and undergoing change. He thought he knew himself at the outset of the series, and the young man he knew wasn’t defined by his family or his hunting inheritance, but by his mind and desires. His first clue that he didn’t really understand himself came with his dream visions of Jess dying, and when those hideous visions were followed by the unexpected reality of Jess dying exactly as he had foreseen, he began to fear the unknown. He began to question not only who he was, but what he was, and as the dreams developed into waking visions he couldn’t avoid, control, or understand, his fear grew. The more he learned about how little he had understood his father and his brother, the more he realized that he didn’t understand himself, either. Learning that the yellow-eyed demon had plans for him, with no clue about what those plans involved but with a clear indication that he and those plans were the nexus of his mother’s and Jess’s deaths, drove him forward with no time for reflection.
Sam still doesn’t know who or what he is. He learned in the two-part finale that he has the potential to do anything and everything that he saw or heard about Ava, Max, Jake, Andy, Lily, and Webber doing, and probably more things that he hasn’t even contemplated. He learned that, when he was six months old, he was fed demon blood, and he still hasn’t a clue what that means for him or for what and whom it will make of him. He learned that his mother recognized the demon, presumably for what it was and for what it was doing, and that her recognition contributed to her death. He is still afraid of what he may become and realizes that the temptation of power is still very real, and may become more real as he faces both a war against daunting odds and the looming grief and guilt of seeing his brother dead and damned for him.
Despite what he’s come to understand about his brother’s love for him, Sam is still afraid to tell Dean what the demon showed him, and what he’s learned about his potential; being afraid of himself, he’s afraid that knowing these uncertainties might change him in Dean’s eyes and heart. Understanding changes everything – and knowing that his personal understanding is still beyond his grasp may well be Sam’s greatest fear and challenge as his story continues.
The lessons I take from Sam’s developing understanding are many. One is a truism: that we never understand our parents until we’re old enough to appreciate events and ourselves as seen from their viewpoint, through their eyes. Another is that as long as we filter our perceptions of others through the lens of our own expectations and assumptions, we never see them for who and what they really are. We need to learn to open our eyes and our minds, to ditch our preconceptions, in order to truly understand ourselves and the people around us.
Understanding changes everything. Including us.