The Thing I Like About …

Awake:  when his mother lights her cigarette.

In Awake, Clay Beresford is a young man with a heart condition. He’s waiting for a heart transplant, and his rare blood type means that he’s been waiting for a long time. When a heart finally becomes available, Clay is prepped for surgery … and experiences everyone’s nightmare – the anesthesia only paralyzes him, while leaving him awake, aware, and able to feel pain.

He endures the situation by taking his mind as far away as it can go – to thoughts of his lovely wife, of his parents, of places he’s been that aren’t this operating room. But eventually it takes its toll, and as he learns unpleasant truths while overhearing the conversations of the people who believe he’s “under”, he sinks into despair and resignation – he decides that he’s not going to live through this, and that maybe he doesn’t really want to.

Visually, we follow Clay as he descends into hopelessness: in his mind, he sees himself walking down the city streets to his home, while the streetlights and building lights go off one by one behind him. Finally he enters his house, where only the foyer light is on, and then even that goes dark. He sits in front of the fireplace for a while, but the fire dies. He makes his way upstairs to his bedroom, the house lights clicking off as he passes them. He curls up on his bed, and the nightstand lamp turns off, leaving him in total darkness. In the real world, his body begins to die, and the doctors working on him are on the verge of giving up; in his mind, he’s given up already, and he sinks further into his bed and waits for death.

Then the single flame of a match cuts through the darkness.

Clay’s mother is there by the bed. She lights her cigarette, and talks to Clay until he’s ready to come back to his life again. She helps him confront the truths he’s been learning, and even gives him new ones to think about. She gives him the strength to face life, and to wake up.

It’s only a match; it’s only a cigarette. But for Clay it’s the only light in the world. For Clay it’s a path through the deepest darkness he’s ever known. For Clay, it’s everything.

We underestimate small lights. We underestimate them in others, and focus instead on all the things about them that annoy us, or all the things they’ve done wrong, or all the things they’ve failed at, or all the ways they’ve let us down by not being what we expected them to be.

And we underestimate our own light – the way that we contribute to this world, not with our money or our position or our staggering intellect, but with our love, our kindness, our unique qualities that offer something special to the world. We underestimate our strength, our success, our ability to give. We underestimate how much we can encourage someone just by being ourselves, just by bringing our good spirit, just by bringing even the smallest light to their darkness.

When we live in the light, we lose perspective; because the light is so bright, we interpret even the slightest shadow as a wretched blot on our otherwise “perfect” existence. We imagine that things are “supposed” to be irradiated with sunshine and solidity and clearly labeled roads to our destination. We start underestimating small lights, because we simply cannot see them. But then life gets darker – because life can get very, very dark – and if we’re not prepared for it, it can overwhelm us. Whether we’re the ones in darkness, or whether it’s our loved ones (or people we have compassion for) whose lives have gone pear-shaped, we want more than anything to bring back the full-on no-shadows sunshine … and we beat ourselves up as failures if we can’t do that.

But our feelings of failure only make the darkness darker and the situation more hopeless. Instead of holding out for all-or-nothing total sunshine, we could instead offer and accept the small lights that humans actually have, and make at least one little space better.

How could one match – one lit cigarette – make any difference? I suppose it depends on how dark it is. For Clay, curled up and waiting for death, that match gives him hope, and lights the way back to his life.

One match can make all the difference in the world. One light, your light, can make all the difference in the world.

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