Sunday, February 26, 2012

Extremely LOUD & Incredibly CLOSE

“It started with a simple problem – a key that needs to fit a lock,” related 9-year-old Oskar.

It is amazing how we humans devise simple problems to cope with complex situations that have no clear answers. Young Oskar Schell could not find sense in the sudden loss of his father through the 9/11 attacks – his father had gone there for a meeting - on a day that he had since termed ‘the worst day’. A year later, he decided to put an end to his zombie existence and put purpose back into life. He found a classified ad in his dad’s jacket, and a key kept in an envelope marked ‘Black’ that fell out of a blue vase. This led to a personal mission to find the Mr, Mrs or Miss Black who might have the lock for his key. Something had to make sense, and a key that fits a lock should provide the relief and sanity that he needed.

For Oskar, this ‘key’ mission turned despair into determination: “Nothing is going to stop me, not even me!” Finally, he felt in control.

Progressively, it became clear that the expedition was important not because of what he would find in the end, but what he would become along the way.

Lesson #1
I devised a system that coded all names into numbers
but found that people are not numbers but more like words that form a story.”

When he walked through doors that were open for him [there were some that didn’t], he would invariably enter into not just homes, but even for a brief moment, into the hearts and life stories of those named ‘Black’. Metaphorically, what's black transforms into a display of love and vibrancy.

Lesson #2
I planned six months but it was never six months...
all the people I met tried to comfort me to make me feel better.”

A healing process took place as Oskar shared his mission statement several times over on his visits. He was prayed for by a group, hugged 17 times by a Mr Black, given a drawing of himself and his key by a younger child. His conversations with those he met, even with the ambiguous granddad figure in the form of his grandmother’s tenant who later joined his expeditions, proved to be cathartic.

The tenant, an elderly man who didn’t speak a word, made it easy for Oskar to share his deepest thoughts and fears in soliloquy. Yet there was honesty and connection between Oskar’s youth and the older man’s senescence. The contrast of tempestuous youth and the measured restraint of maturity was palpable, and a necessary pairing. Ironically, having a non-speaking expedition partner helped the youth to hear his own voice better. And helped him to come to terms with his own grief and frustrations. Pointedly, the older man’s silence made Oskar realize how much he missed his dad’s voice.

A Different Kind of Normal

Barring that which enables dysfunctional and destructive behaviour, normal has different range for different families. Clearly, neither the disorder of Asperger Syndrome nor the disaster of the 9/11 attacks is central to the story that can be abstruse except to those with life experiences or the propensity to see deeper. It’s a story about the invasion of a crisis that shatters a family. It treats differences in human behaviour – a child with the idiosyncrasies of Aspergers, parents who are not like each other, an elderly man who doesn’t speak – as mere nuances of normality in life. There is no quick stereo-typing and labelling here to make sense of a chaotic world. What’s so abnormal about a child who finds refuge under his bed or in his closet if you know that he is safe and you can find him there? What’s so abnormal about a man who refuses to speak but has more honesty in his non-verbal articulation than speaking folks?

Oskar soon discovered the paradox of saying to one who doesn’t utter a word, ‘It’s easy for you to say!’ The dual meaning in this emotional outburst amplified for one the excruciating pain of being locked in silence, and for the other, the debilitating neurosis rendered by Aspergers.

The Love Of A Grieving Mom

Mom was pleading with Oskar outside his bedroom door:
Oscar, please let me come in.’
Why do you want to come in?
To tell you that I love you.’

At this point, I saw a parallel scene with Someone Else at the door of our heart pleading: Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. He never lets up no matter how much sense, enjoyment, comfort, activities we stubbornly try to create and generate in that small room of our lives, not realizing that we were made for life beyond that room with Someone bigger than ourselves.

Not knowing how to live without his dad, Oskar filled the void with a compulsion to find the matching lock for his key. Unknown to him, his mom whom he had alienated, was a step ahead of him throughout his expedition, knocking on doors and telling different ones named ‘Black’ about her son’s impending visit, smoothing the path that he was to take and making his experiences more meaningful. Indeed, everywhere he visited, he became a ‘mini celebrity’. He was welcomed, loved, and invited into a moment of their life. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. [John 4:10] Like the mother’s love, God’s love is not a comfortable love – it is a lonely and long-suffering love unrequited, extended to one undeserving of it. Yet, in all that we are going through, He has already gone one step ahead of us to make the journey bearable and meaningful.

Watching Oskar vent his pain, his mom stood by knowingly and comforted him above his protests, ‘I know, I know...I knew you had to go make sense of things...I want to go with you.’ Then, as she shared with him the details of her own exploratory trip ahead of his expedition, he found so much experiences they had in common to celebrate and laugh about.

Oxymoronists Thrive in Life

Oxymoronists are people who embrace and learn from the contradictions in life. Little Oskar found himself musing about his grandfatherly companion: “Even though he never said a word, for the first time, since dad died, I felt like I had someone to talk to.” Without a word, older person’s face said so much.

Oxymoronists see the invitation of pain to pure joy [James 1:2], the opportunity to being found when one is lost [Luke 15:32], and calmness in chaos [Mark 4:39-41]. In the Bible, Paul’s life was an oxymoron.

There was a flashback to pre-9/11 when father and son traded oxymorons: Seriously funny. Clearly confused. Genuine imitation. Accidently on purpose. Oxymorons are pointed statements formed by contrasting words for effect.

Similarly in life, when someone says the ‘No’ that we so desperately want to hear, it’s the relief we have no courage to give ourselves. Like when he was going to play the 6th message his dad left him on the answering machine, his older friend wrote an emphatic ‘No! It’s enough!’

Nobody Wants to Know the Ending

I will not let the cat out of the bag, but this story carries a strong allegory about our purpose in life: that we are all seekers and within each of us is the potential to help another. And that even if we have to let go of something precious to help another resolve their dilemmas, we will inevitably find for ourselves freedom from the clutches of our deepest fear when we let go of that which is precious.

I'll admit that the original draw of the movie for me was the combination of Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks, and the provocative title. However, I was rewarded by a stellar performance from the entire cast who delivered a simple story in a powerful way.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher

Casting an American actress in the role of the former British Premier, Margaret Thatcher, was a controversial decision that perhaps set the tone and necessary tension for Meryl Streep’s delicate portrayal of Britain’s first woman premier. The Iron Lady was known as much for the contrast of her bright blue suits against the men's monotone suits as being a leader who made no apology for advocating and seeing through unpopular reforms.

I saw the portrayal of a woman often baffled by her male contemporaries’ head-nodding compliance to groupthink as compared to real thinking, and found her assertion on this matter [from another source] noteworthy: "To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects." (1)

"Being powerful is like being a lady.
If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t." (2)

As a woman, I applaud Margaret Thatcher for wearing her femininity without the condescending need to conform to majority rule or to compromise her beliefs to fit consensus.  Personally, I have observed how traditional culture pervades the notion that a woman's capability is a threat to her spouse and to others, and she needs to subdue it.  Often, such messages come from women themselves in the form of backhanded compliments, "You are so smart and capable, I feel so inadequate around you."  Surely, for women and men, the meaning of our lives has to be found more in purpose and passion than in our gender and familial roles. Characteristically, the young Thatcher warned her beau when he popped the question, “One’s life must matter beyond being married, raising children... I don’t want to die washing cups!” Indeed, women can do all these and more.

Some other noteworthy quotes from the movie:

Alluding to re-runs of past events on the news, Denis Thatcher reminded his wife: You can rewind it, but you can’t change it.”

The Iron Lady aggressed about her radical reforms: What we need is MEDICINE and to take it... we are not managing decline but [in my own words] be healthy and prosperous.”

During an interview with BBC, 1973: I don’t think there will be a woman Prime Minister in my lifetime.’ Understatement of the century.

People don’t care about thinking anymore but about what they are feeling... what are you feeling about this and that. What we think, we become. And I think I am fine,’ she told her doctor.

After the Iron Lady suffered dementia, her mental capacity deteriorated.  If the hallucinations of Denise shown throughout the movie were true, they would only be to fill the void and loneliness typically experienced by a surviving or staying spouse.  She sees him, hears his voice and engages in conversation with him as though he is still around.  Indeed, fantasy has a way to help people cope with loneliness and alleviate the pain of emotional void.

Although I took my teenaged daughter to this deferential biopic so that she could learn something about an iconic figure, the movie does seem to draw a more mature and dignified audience, judging by the people streaming in after us.  No clue why it was rated 'PG13 Brief Nudity' as there were no conspicuous nudity, sex or violent scenes.

1,2 Quotes from Margaret Thatcher extracted from