The Thing I Like About …

In Time: the part where his mother is running for her life [spoiler alert].

In In Time, Will Salas and his mother Rachel live in a world where time is currency; people stay young forever, so they are programmed at birth to have only a certain amount of time to live.  If someone’s little electronic arm-display goes to zero, the program stops the person’s heart, and he dies.  As you might expect, the “rich” – the ones with hundreds of years on their arm-displays – horde time, while the “poor” have to work all day just to earn enough time to live until morning.  The rich live in one part of the city, and the poor live in another part, separated by concrete walls and roadblocks; the rich move slowly and leisurely, while the poor, having to accomplish as much as possible in the brief time they’re given, move quickly.  They don’t mosey, or stroll, or dawdle.  They run.

Will has come into some extra time that he will give to his mother as soon as she gets home on the bus.  He has a bouquet of flowers for her.  He’s excited to see her.  But when the bus arrives, she’s not on it.  The city raised the bus fare to two hours for a trip, but Rachel only has two hours left.  She’s obliged to run, hoping she can get home before her display drains to zero.  She runs through the dark, empty streets; she runs for the two hours, sprinting, her bare feet slapping the pavement as she flies with all her strength.  She runs, and catches sight of Will, who has realized what must have happened and is running toward her as fast as she is running toward him.  They see each other, and run toward each other, and … she’s too late.

She dies.

Our lives aren’t printed on electronic displays on our arms.  Unlike the people in the movie, we can’t earn more hours by working harder, or steal them in a poker game.  We don’t know how long we have; at any moment any one of us could die.  So does that mean we should all start moving a little faster, and doing as much as possible in the brief and unpredictable time we have? – not at all.  In fact, I think we should slow down, and move much more slowly, and just be – as intensely as possible for whatever length of life we’re given.  Rachel had the opportunity to know exactly how long she would live; she responded by living her life as fully as she could, by running with all of her strength and will and soul to cling to a life she knew was precious and fleeting.  So often, we just go through the motions of our lives, not even aware that time is ticking by, not able to run for our lives even if we wanted to.  We don’t see our lives – our time – as a gift that can drain away; we don’t have passion for our lives.

Maybe things didn’t end well for Rachel … but in the two hours she spent running – toward her son, her life, her chance – she lived with more passion than a lot of people in the real world ever, ever do.

The Thing I Like About …

Groundhog Day: the part where he keeps trying to save the guy who dies.

Phil is a reporter sent to cover the groundhog seeing his shadow on Groundhog’s Day.  For some reason, he enters a time loop and relives the same day over again .. and over and over and over again.  He starts trying to make small changes – to himself, of course, but also to the old man who dies in the gutter at the end of that day.

He tries to save him every day.  He tries CPR.  He tries encountering him earlier in the day, getting him a hot meal and some warm clothes.  He tries everything he knows how to do, but no matter what, the old man dies at the end of the day.

For me, this is the turning point for Phil, more so even than the meaningful connections he makes that eventually break the time loop.  He has to accept that he cares – something he had not been able to do before – and he has to accept that, no matter what he does or how hard he tries, he can’t control everything.  Not even an important thing.  The most important thing in this world – whether we’re dead or alive – is actually entirely and completely beyond Phil’s ability to change by even a moment.

In the film, Phil has to grieve for the old man; he has to come to terms with his “failure” to save him.  But actually, he learned the one thing that was stymying him when he arrived in Punxsutawney, and the thing that tends to stymie all of us:  whether the old man lives or dies is irrelevant.  It’s not the saving of the old man that Phil was being asked to do.  He was being asked to care.  He was being asked to involve himself with another human being, and to help make that person’s life as happy as possible while he’s on this planet.  Maybe the old man died anyway, but Phil had turned what could have been a sad ending in a cold gutter into an evening with a new friend, a full tummy and a warm bed.  Basically, Phil didn’t fail at all.

We all die.  What matters isn’t that we die, but what we do before we die.  Who have we fed?  Who have we clothed?  Who have we befriended?  Who have we loved?  Did we make the people in the world happier with our actions, or not?  Who did we hold, and who’s holding us?  Phil needed to learn to see the world from this perspective, and so do we, I think … but unlike Phil, we only have the one chance at it.  Let’s not mess it up.

Bit O’Blog

Revisiting The Road

If you watch The Road … well, you might cry a lot.  You might walk away sad or uplifted or both.  If you have children, you may feel differently about it than if you don’t have children.  You may feel strongly about The Road’s message, or you may not be able to relate to it at all – it may seem too farfetched to get emotionally involved. It’s an intricate piece, with a wide range of messages and meanings to offer.  But at the end of it, as I posted a couple of weeks ago, The Road doesn’t seem to be about the post-apocalypse at all.  It’s about a father and his son, and the passing of the world from the older generation to the younger one.

When the Dad gets angry – understandably – at the man who steals their food, the Boy argues with him, as he had once before about the old man with whom the Boy wanted to share their dinner.  The Dad has reason to be wary of strangers – it’s not that his advice isn’t spot-on – but in each situation where the Boy argues with his Dad, it turns out the Boy is right.  The Dad is always in charge and the Boy always respects him, but when the Boy argues with him about these ethical matters, the Dad relents.

So what’s the point?  Well, weirdly, I don’t think it’s particularly about the ethical matters.  The Boy is justified in trusting people who have done him no harm, and in forgiving people whose reasons for stealing from him he readily understands.  He’s justified in thinking that “the good guys” do good things.  The Dad is justified, though, too, in setting boundaries and in keeping his son safe from harm based on his greater experience.  He’s justified in his anger at thieves, and his mistrust of strangers in such a harsh world.  Both make compelling arguments, and the Dad prevails in some things while the Boy prevails in others.  Just like, you know, real parenting and real growing up.

Is the point that the Dad learns from his Boy? – that he learns something about faith, and forgiveness, and compassion from this little kid?  That’s an excellent point, to be sure, and I have learned more from my children than I can say.  Of course the Dad learns from his Boy, because he’s a good Dad and is willing to listen to his Boy … and in the real world, that happens all the time.

In the literary context, though, I think it’s not so much about learning as it is about realizing.  The Dad realizes that his son is making his own decisions about people, about danger, about the rules – not because he’s growing up, but because it’s the Boy’s world to make decisions about.  From the Dad’s perspective, everything he knew is gone, but from the Boy’s point of view, it’s just the world, and the things in it are the things in it.  It’s the Boy’s world, and he prevails in all the arguments that revolve around defining that world, until finally the Dad sees that the world he knew is in the past, and that the future belongs to the next generation.

It doesn’t matter if our world is getting better or worse, or if it’s changing or staying the same.  What matters is that we grow old and die, and new people come to replace us, and it will be their time just like it was ours – they have to build it, and, while we can guide them with a few overarching principals – the “good guy” stuff – it’s really not something we have any say in.

The Dad realizes that, whatever their post-apocalyptic world will become, it is the Boy’s world to shape and define.  When the Dad accepts that he has given what he can, and that the rest is up to the Boy, he is able to find some faith, some trust, some future for his son.  He’s able, in that moment, to put down a great burden.  I think that’s what parenting is all about, and what society is all about, and what The Road is really all about.

Bit O’Blog

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.