A brief break in my teaching schedule gives me an opportunity to write about something I’ve become aware of in the movies and books I’ve seen and read recently. While I watch and read for enjoyment with hopefully no agenda, upon reflection I may notice a common thread being explored, and wisdom being shared.
First, let me say how fortunate we are that even in the summer, traditionally reserved for movies full of car chases, monsters, aliens, zombies and assorted ‘bad guys’, there are brilliant films like Blindspotting and Leave No Trace. (And these aren’t the only quality films out right now!)
As for reading, I just finished Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and have started reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer. (I promised myself I would give bestsellers a chance, so have been requesting them at the library.)
What is the common thread? All of these works provide insight into the life and culture of people who are living in fear. The father in Leave No Trace is dealing with PTSD, needing to take care of himself and his daughter as best he can. The daughter is fearful for her father, afraid of losing him, and at the same time afraid of being kept from the natural venturing forth into the world that is part of coming of age. It’s impossible not to feel great compassion for both these characters and to want the best for them. But what is best? Given his inability to stay indoors or lead a life that would allow her what she needs, there is no easy answer.
In Blindspotting, the fear is palpable as we enter the life of a young Oakland man, who has turned his life around and is days from being done with probation, if he can just steer clear of trouble. Because he is so personable, I found myself tense and anxious, as his very ordinary working life seemed full of perils. I was invested in his not just staying free but staying alive, as the fear of police — a fear made reasonable by an incident he witnesses at close hand early in the film, as well as so many police shootings that we’re all aware of — becomes a presence throughout the film. Remaining free and alive is especially challenging when his oldest closest friend seems to stir up trouble wherever he goes. The mother in me wanted to shout ‘Steer clear of this guy! He’s trouble!’ With the pale skin of the dominant culture, the friend is unencumbered by the fear of police profiling, and seems oblivious to the danger he puts his friend in with his behavior. But he feels he has something to prove. Having grown up in a predominately African-American neighborhood, he has adapted by adopting, to absurd extremes, the trappings of the culture of the ‘hood. Without that identity, who would he be? Would he disappear? That’s a core fear for many of us who feel we need to promote a ‘self’ to be seen, respected and loved.
In the multi-generational novel Pachinko, the characters are mostly Koreans who live in Japan where being Korean is socially and legally challenging. They fear being sent back to Korea, not being accepted in Japan, and not being able to make a decent life through the fruits of their labor. The descendants of Korean immigrants, though born in Japan, are not Japanese citizens. Instead, on their fourteenth birthdays, they are required to get fingerprinted and apply to stay in the country for three more years. A naturalization process is possible, though difficult, but the discrimination is still a huge issue. There are a lot of explorations of identity as well, and the intrinsic fear causes much heartache.
In the novel Less, about an aging gay author embarking on a trip around the world, I am only a few chapters in, but on page 45 I find this:
“Name a day, name an hour, in which Arthur Less was not afraid. Of ordering a cocktail, taking a taxi, teaching a class, writing a book. Afraid of these and almost everything else in the world.”
What a gift these films and novels provide! We can recognize the universality of humanity. If any of us were in any of these situations, given all the causes and conditions these characters experienced, we would fear what they fear and very likely react as they do.
Whether it’s a veteran father with PTSD, a daughter who wants to be with her father but also wants to live a normal life, a young black man trying to get his life back on track, a young white man grappling with his identity, a gay author feeling like he’s failing, or anyone living as a minority in a culture that belittles and excludes them, there is so much room for us to deepen our own understanding and compassion.
We might ask ourselves:
Where do I feel fear arising?
How is that fear playing out in my life?
Where might I be causing those feelings in others?
Can I be compassionate with myself, while gently relaxing and releasing fear?
And we might encourage filmmakers and writers to continue making movies and novels that both entertain and challenge us! Hooray!