… 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.
The man stood behind the tree until he heard sirens, and then he scuttled away, disappearing into the park without a trace. Dana watched him from her upstairs bedroom window, tilted her head in curiosity as he hurried to avoid the – she craned her neck to see the source of the sirens – police. He was avoiding the police. How strange, she thought. He didn’t look like he needed to avoid police. He looked like a regular person.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, she thought. Maybe he’s just avoiding everyone, and the police happen to be here too.
She certainly understood wanting to avoid everyone.
She sighed, and folded her hands in her lap, and stared out at the deepening twilight. This neighbourhood is so pretty, she thought. The trees are so pretty. The window was open, and she could smell all kinds of flowers, and someone’s barbecue. It was all actually very nice. Maybe she didn’t want to leave.
But it was too late now.
She could already feel the changing, the tingling and the hollowness. Her head was already getting a little fuzzy.
But what if she just ran off, like the man in the park? What if she just walked away from everything and started over on the other side of the park? Metaphorically, of course; she didn’t really want to run away. Life was hard enough without having to start from scratch and do it all on her own. But maybe she could metaphorically run away – just let go of all this stuff she always found herself clinging to, all the difficulty and anxiety and sadness, all the bad memories that never seemed to go away.
But I don’t want to take drugs or whatnot, she argued with herself, ignoring the irony of the notion. I don’t want to medicate myself into oblivion.
A different part of her head responded, as very sensible part that she usually tried to ignore as well. It said, very sensibly: Then you would have to learn to do it – to go to the “other side of the park” – without stuff like that. There are all kinds of people who are specifically trained to help you do that.
But that sounds so … fatiguing, she complained to this sensible voice. Her hands felt all floaty, and she clutched them together to keep them from flying away. That sounds like it would be a lot of work, and I’m already so tired.
But that’s because you’re not doing the things that trained people would help you do, to make it not so tired and not so hard.
That’s easy for you to say, she argued, and then giggled. “Oh dear,” she murmured to the empty bedroom. “I think my head’s not working.” She squared her shoulders, and collected her scant ability to think or focus, and contemplated her own thought process. The sensible voice was no doubt correct. It almost always was; it was very sensible. And while it was very, very, painfully true that nothing was as easy to do as it sounded like it would be when you just said it, it was also true that all kinds of people would help her.
If she let them.
She looked at the bushes through which the strange man had disappeared. He was clearly evading police, she thought. And he had no doubt fled through the other side of the park, and the police might never find him. He had clearly done something that the police would not be happy about, she thought, and he’s getting away. He’s getting what he wants, and he’s a criminal of some sort.
Surely she deserved as much chance as he did.
She sighed again. “Oh dear,” she said again. “I hope it’s not too late.” She turned with difficulty to the cellphone on her nightstand, and picked it up with tangled fingers that didn’t want to do what she told them to do. Her strength was fading fast, she realized. Better hurry. She managed to push the numbers, and waited the interminable several seconds that went by before someone answered.
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
“Hello,” she said, as pleasantly as she could muster. “I’ve taken a bunch of pills, and I need someone to come and help me, because I’ve decided that I don’t want to die after all.”
“What’s your address, ma’am?”
She gave the person her address. “Please hurry,” she said, her voice growing fainter with every breath. “I don’t think there’s much time.”
“I’m dispatching an ambulance right now,” the person assured her. “We already have police in that area; I’ll send a unit to come stay with you until the ambulance gets there. What’s your name?”
“Dana,” she said. She felt so much better just to have made a decision. “Will you help me?” she asked. “I really don’t want to die anymore.”
“I’m right here,” the person promised. “I’ll stay here until the ambulance comes. You stay with me, okay?”
“Okay,” Dana said. She sat quietly and waited for more sirens, for police and paramedics, for help. She needed to get to the other side of the park, she thought. It’s a metaphor, she thought, finding that to be extremely funny. She was still chuckling about it when the police found her.
… Independence Day: the part where Mr. Nimzicki sits down with the kids in a prayer circle.
Albert Nimzicki is an advisor to the President; when the aliens attack Earth, he gives the pragmatic and sensible advice he had been trained to give. But his advice is counterproductive and often callous to the point of amorality. He doesn’t seem to be a bad man per se, but the audience cheers in relief when the President fires Mr. Nimzicki and takes over the counter-attacks himself.
Of course, the counter-attack depends on a thousand factors going precisely well, and “just in case”, the survivors in the underground Area-51 facility barricade the doors and try to prepare for the worst. Julius Levinson – a man who has “not spoken to God” since his wife died – kneels with the children in a circle and invites them to join hands. Mr. Nimzicki observes the circle; he is also invited to join, but he hesitates. “I’m not Jewish,” he says. Julius shrugs. “Nobody’s perfect,” he tells him, and brings him into the circle. And Mr. Nimzicki sits down and reaches out to hold hands with the people on either side of him.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if we believe in God or not; what matters to Julius, Mr. Nimzicki, and the children is that, if there is a God, that God is as present as possible, and, if there isn’t one, at least other humans were there – for comfort, for warmth, for whatever happens.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if Mr. Nimzicki has been a dork or if he’s right or wrong; what matters is that there are no qualifications or expectations to enter the circle of hope and fellowship – except that we must be willing to sit down and reach out to the people on either side of us. Mr. Nimzicki’s not perfect. No one is perfect. But we are able, at any time, to give of ourselves to others who are frightened, and to take from others the knowledge that we are not alone.
The Eleventh Hour
My friend Bob used to work as a cleaner for (furnished) university apartments. One day, after a tenant left for “medical reasons,” Bob was sent in to clean up, particularly the couch – one arm of the couch was completely, extraordinarily drenched in blood. The blood had settled deep into the material, but Bob set about pulling it up with the extractor … over and over and over again, for hours.
He said that the experience filled him with great hope. As you might imagine, I asked him why.
He explained that the “medical reasons” were that the tenant had tried to commit suicide. He had entered a hole of darkness and despair, alone in his living room with seemingly insurmountable pain, and he had slashed his wrists. But in truly the eleventh hour, when so much blood had come out of him that it was a wonder he was still breathing, he decided he wanted to live. He called 911. He pressed his wrists into the arm of the couch to stop the bleeding. He waited with all of his weight pressed onto his arms and onto the arm of the couch, until paramedics came and saved him.
Bob saw hope not just because the man lived; he saw hope because the man decided to live – that in the darkest moment, when all seemed desolate and pointless, he found a light to follow. Bob saw the hope there, the second chance, the course correction. He saw the struggle to climb out of despair, the success achieved when failure seemed certain. He saw this amidst all that blood, and it gave him hope that the challenges and obstacles we face are surmountable, no matter how bleak they may seem.
And he kept pulling up the blood with the extractor, until the water ran clear.
… Guillermo del Toro: his view of children’s world.
In his movies, del Toro usually paints a gritty, uncompromising world, full of heartbreak, pain, child abuse, betrayal, death … you know, the usual. Especially for the children, del Toro’s world is stressful at best – confusing, difficult, dark. He never pulls any punches about what children are obliged to face – unfortunately, we all know that in the real world, children too often deal with even darker circumstances.
But at the same time, del Toro’s world is full of magic, full of love and hope, full of noble sacrifice. There are strange and wondrous things around every corner for those who are willing to see them – usually children, of course, who crave new experiences, especially if they offer an escape from sadness or pain. This magical world often asks a great deal of its visitors – sometimes very frightening things, in fact – but for those who are willing to go into this wondrous land, their lives are transformed, and the unjust are brought to account.
In a del Toro story, the children have to be brave, the grown-ups have to be deserving, and, just beyond the wretched world that we so often are content to live in, the magical world exists right in front of us – all we have to do is open our eyes and be courageous.
In a del Toro story, the child who is struggling to flee a dark life is the most able and ready to find the magic – is Guillermo saying that our pain brings us to transcendence? I’m sure he is, because our pain does bring us to transcendence, if we let it. But I think that he uses children – ones in such dire lives – to help the audience polarize their feelings: it’s so obvious that these kids should have something better, that we immediately put ourselves behind their efforts. For their sake, we believe in magic, we face the fearful images, we make the sacrifices, we work to be deserving.
By presenting an unvarnished, cold world and placing children right in the middle of it, Guillermo del Toro asks us all to find the magic in our own worlds, to bring into reality the wondrous things that surround his most vulnerable characters and challenge us to do the same.