The Thing I Like About …

The Abyss:  the part where Lt. Coffey puts his hand on the glass.

[Warning: mild spoiler]

In The Abyss, an underwater oil drilling platform becomes the focus of what seems to be extraterrestrial contact.  Representatives from the military, including Lt. Coffey, are sent down to the platform along with the regular drilling crew; Lt. Coffey quickly begins to exhibit signs of pressure psychosis, becoming increasingly agitated, paranoid, and aggressive.

Ultimately he decides to take matters into his own hands, stealing one of the underwater pods and using it to take a nuclear weapon to the extraterrestrial “camp” – at the bottom of an extremely deep trench in the ocean floor.  He feels it’s the only way to guarantee the safety of our planet, and because of the psychosis, he is unable to listen to anyone else’s pleas for reason, patience, or calm.

The drilling crew, on the other hand, see the extraterrestrial contact as benevolent and exciting; in any event, they don’t feel a nuclear attack is the best way to proceed.  Two of the crew – Bud and Lindsey – take another pod and go after Lt. Coffey to stop him, but Coffey is most determined.  He rams his pod into theirs and tries to drive them into the rock wall; he disables both their pods in the fight, and the pods, now stuck together, fall toward the trench.  Lt. Coffey’s is closest, and he goes over the edge first, the weight of his pod pulling him gradually away from Bud and Lindsey’s pod and into the trench.  All three people realize that Coffey is going to fall, and that none of them can stop it.

That’s when he puts his hand on the glass window of the pod.

For a couple of days, Coffey has been upset and hostile.  He’s been willing to hurt and even kill.  His intention has been to destroy an entire contingent of an alien race.  He’s been doing this because of paranoia and generalized fear, and he’s been doing it with a significant ability to harm.

For a couple of days, the others have been trying to talk Coffey down, and to defend themselves from his increasing violence.  They’re willing to hurt and even kill him if it means they thwart his little nuclear plan.  They don’t … like him.  But now, as he slides away from them in the cold dark water, Lindsey puts her hand on the glass too.

We aren’t all facing extraterrestrial meetings in extreme environments, but so many of us behave like Lt. Coffey – acting on what we are sure is the best instinct, acting to protect ourselves and our loved ones from perceived threat, even if the threat is false, even if the perception is skewed by trauma, stress, or fatigue, or just by being subconscious rather than conscious.  We go through our lives defending our perimeters based on stuff we may have internalized so long ago that we don’t even realize it’s there; we react with anger and fear toward a great many things – sometimes so strongly that it ends up on the news, or even in the history books.  And even those of us who feel we are the Buds and Lindseys of the world – the “good guys” – we’re still often just responding to all the Lt. Coffeys, jabbing at them to make them stop, and driving with them, all tangled together, into rock walls and trenches.

But underneath we’re all the same – not just because we’re all human (even the worst among us), but also because we act, whether rightly or wrongly, from the same premise: we’re afraid.  Afraid to lose what we have, afraid to lose loved ones or safety or comfort, afraid to die.

In that moment, when Lt. Coffey touches the glass of his pod, and Lindsey touches the glass of her pod, they connect – they see the one thing in the other that is also in themselves: they don’t want to die.  And within that connection, Lindsey reaches out to the man who’s been trying to kill her all day, and Lt. Coffey reaches out to the person he saw as a bitter, deadly enemy.  They can’t touch; they can’t help each other or save each other or fix anything.  But in that moment, Lt. Coffey knows that he is not alone.

If Lt. Coffey had been able to let go of his fear of danger, he could have protected everyone much more easily.  If he had been able to let go of his fear of loss, he would not have had to lose anything.  If he had been able to let go of fear, then he would have known all along that he was never alone – and if we are able to let go of our fears, and see the parts of us that connect us with others, maybe we’ll discover that we’re not alone either.

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