Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"You cut the turkey without me?"


-Quote provided by Barry Levinson's AVALON (1990)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Faith & Suffering in Shadowlands

"Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: the fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief."

Suffering is a part of life. At some point in our time spent on this Earth we are all confronted with this truth. Charles Grodin begins his autobiography It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here with the anecdote: "I remember crying once as a little boy (I forgot why) and thinking that if this was the best life had to offer, I wasn't so sure about going on." I mention this passage because it eerily reflects one of my own experiences. I also remember crying once when I was younger (like Chuck, I don't recall the reason or even the exact circumstances) and disliking it to the point that I wasn't so crazy about continuing on with this life if it was going to involve this. It's not that I was contemplating suicide or anything like that. I was just desperately searching for a way to "bargain" with life such that I wouldn't have to endure any more pain.

For some individuals this is where the dealing with the reality of pain begins and ends. My college professor once said that there are two kinds of people in this world: philosophers and drug addicts. The drug addict merely goes through life looking for the next distraction to keep himself occupied. The philosopher actually faces into the tough issues that life has to offer. He asks questions and seeks answers. Even as a youngster (though I was beginning to display "drug addict" tendencies in my desire to sidestep as much pain as possible) I was also already launching my tenure as a lifelong philosopher because in the midst of my tears I was asking a simple but vital question: "Why?"

"Why?" is a very important question. In fact, "Why?" may be the most important question a person can ever ask in his lifetime. The question of "Why?" particularly seems to surface in the face of extreme hardship. As the aforementioned college professor wrote once in a book: "Our questioning is not really from a desire to know the particular meaning of the particular event. More importantly, it is from a desire to be assured that it has any meaning at all." In other words, does my suffering serve some purpose? Is there meaning behind it? Or rather is it pointless and arbitrary? Is it simply another random occurence in a cold, unfeeling and ultimately absurd universe? Well, as a Christian, quite obviously I believe that there is meaning to suffering (and consequently to life) and some of my favorite stories deal with this very theme. That's why, when I heard a while back about RC's Film + Faith Blog-a-thon over at Strange Culture, I knew exactly which film I was going to write about... well, it was this one or The Mission.

Some of my real-life heroes have been extraordinary indviduals who stood up against incredible odds to fight for some form of liberty for themselves and their fellow man (Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Oskar Schindler, etc), but some of my other heroes happen to be a more mundane, less "romantic" historical figures. One in particualr holds a special place in my heart. This fellow didn't start any great revolutions. He didn't free or save millions of people. He was just an ordinary guy who dealt with what life threw at him in a very real and very forthright way. It is precisely the "ordinary-ness" of author C.S. Lewis that makes him, in my mind, heroic and noble. Ironically, when it comes to Lewis' writing, I am not necessarily his biggest fan. His fiction (primarily the Chronicles of Narnia series) is pleasant enough but a little too allegorical for my taste (I actually prefer the books of his friend and fellow "Inkling" J.R.R. Tolkien), but I love his more "philosophical" efforts (such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, etc). Although I admit I haven't read as much of his work as I would like to, the reason I respect and admire Lewis has less to do with his achievements as a writer and more to do with his experiences as a human being.

Though raised in a religious family, Lewis became an atheist in his teen years. It was actually Tolkien who helped convert him back to theism and Lewis ended up becoming one of the great Christian apologists. Certainly no stranger to suffering (having fought in the trenches of WWI), Lewis wrote some thought-provoking meditations on reconciling the existence of evil and the reality of human suffering with the concept of a righteous, loving and omnipotent God in such works as The Problem of Pain. Lewis' theodicy was well-developed, intelligent and rational.

"God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

Then something significant happened. Lewis met and fell in love with an American woman named Joy Gresham. Joy moved to England with her two sons (David and Douglas) and she and Lewis were married in 1956 and lived relatively happily together for four years. In 1960, Joy died of Bone cancer and a short time later, in 1963, Lewis himself followed. During the intervening three years, Lewis struggled quite a bit with the loss of Joy. Though it was not Lewis' first occasion doing so (his mother also died of a cancer when Lewis was very young), for some reason Joy's death seems to have affected him deeper than anythings else he had ever endured up to that point. This challenged Lewis' faith to an incredible extent and in his book A Grief Observed, Lewis lays out very honestly and openly not only the bereavement felt over the death of his beloved wife but the anger, the fear and the general questioning felt in the face of a possibility that God is not real or, perhaps worse, that He is not good. The text is such an outpouring of a person's emotions, doubts and vulnerabilities. To read A Grief Observed is to see a man lay his innermost being completely bare, to gain insight into a soul in turmoil.

"No one ever told me grief felt so much like fear."

Interestingly, A Grief Observed was initially published under a pseudonym and never mentioned his wife by name. Thus, a number of Lewis' friends recommended the book to him thinking it might be of some help to him. I find this scenario not only ironic but also extremely revealing because it suggests that Lewis' own friends didn't recognize him in his writing. This indicates to me that his musings in A Grief Observed were unlike any writing he had ever done before. Indeed, I first read it during somewhat of a dark period in my own life and found that it "felt" completely different from, say, Mere Christianity (which I had also recently read at the time). The Lewis who wrote before Joy's death and the Lewis who wrote after it seeemed to me like two completely different men. It's as if the first Lewis had it all figured out and the second Lewis wasn't quite so sure anymore. The Lewis who wrote a A Grief Observed is the Lewis whose perspective on pain was really put to the test, who was given more of an intense taste of the kind of acute, almost crippling, anguish and heartache that life has offer. Thus, he gained a deeper understanding and more profound appreciation of what pain truly is, what it does to us and, of course, whether or not it has purpose.

"Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn."

Being that C.S. Lewis is one of my heroes and his story is an extremely moving one to me, it should come as no shock to people that one of my favorite films is Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands as it dramatizes the period in Lewis' life I have described above. Shadowlands actually began as a 1985 BBC-TV movie written by William Nicholson starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom (of which I've only seen bits and pieces a long time ago) and was then adapted by Nicholson into a stageplay. It was this stageplay that served as the basis for the 1993 film which features the great Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy. While I've been told that the earlier version is far more subtle, less "Hollywood" in its style and sensebilities and contains fewer liberties taken with Lewis' story (the two Gresham sons, for example, are combined into one child for the '93 version) it would be a mistake, I think, to dismiss the later version's "gloss" for lack of substance. Certainly the film is handsomely shot and exceptionally well acted but, in fact, there is quite a bit about it that is very "un-Hollywood." First off, while some might find it emotionally manipulative I find it to be very restrained and low-key. Also, while many films are content to simply use tragedy as a means for injecting "drama" into a love story (cancer almost always serves quite effectively in that capacity) without unpacking its deep and lasting effects on real flesh-and-blood human beings, Shadowlands faces directly into the provocoative complexities of dealing with suffering and death... especially in the context of spiritual faith.

Sometimes it seems to me that faith is perceived nowadays as a kind of unflinching optimism; a delusionary reassurance in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that "all will be well;" it amounts to little more than closing one's eyes, covering one's eyes and singing "LA! LA! LA!" in the face of any and all adversity. In this sense, the idea of faith is almost always associated with blindness or ignorance, a phenomenon with which I must admit I don't necessarily see a lot of virtue. In essence, that kind of faith is really just another way of distracting one's self, another drug for the addict to take to deaden the pain rather than actually deal with it. I'm not so sure that God wants us to be a bunch of "Pollyannas," only seeing good everywhere and not admitting that oftentimes things just plain suck, taking pleasure in our pain as if we were masochists. I think He wants us to look squarely into the darkness that exists and acknowledge it for what it is (this includes seeing the darkness in ourselves as well). A lot of the time this involves anger, sadness and a whole other range of sensations that really don't feel very good. If one can emerge from the other end of this tunnel of misery and still have hope, then I think one can be more assured of his faith.

This is where pain and suffering can serve a purpose. A faith that has actually learned to confront the harsh reality of pain seems to me to be a deeper and stronger faith. It's a faith that, as the book of James says, is "tested by fire." Naturally that doesn't make the testing process itself any easier. Lewis understood that but he didn't really come to grips with it until Joy was taken from him. He did not abandon his faith before his passing, but he did have great difficulty holding onto it. In the end, Lewis' faith was a well-earned one. He held his beliefs not because he simply refused to confront reality, but rather because he confronted reality. He did not have blind faith. On the contrary, he had eyes to see.

Just as I would recommend Lewis' book A Grief Observed to anyone going through a rough period in their life, I feel I can recommend Shadowlands to anyone who has ever asked "Why?" in the midst of a tough time. It may not make anybody's list of great films (although it did make the 100 Most Spiritually Significant Films over at Arts & Faith) but on the subject of faith, I happen to think it is one of the greatest out there. It doesn't provide any huge, enlightening answers, but it does ask some hard questions and poses some thought-provoking ideas. Like C.S. Lewis himself, the film is humble but passionate, warm but melancholy, terribly sad and yet simultaneously full of immense joy. As Jack (Lewis' nickname) and his wife discuss in a scene set in the beauty of a picturesque countryside (but with rain serving as an almost symbolic counterpoint):

JOY: It’s not going to last.
JACK: We don’t need to think of that now. Let’s not spoil the time we have together.
JOY: It doesn’t spoil it. It makes it real.... What I’m trying to say is that the pain then is part of the happiness now.

In closing, I want to briefly mention something that I think is interesting. As it does to all men, death finally came C.S. Lewis on November 22, 1963. If that date looks at all familiar to you it's because it was the same day that JFK was assassinated and from a global socio-political perspective that was naturally the more significant event. Thus, every newspaper the world over splashed across their front pages headlines of Kennedy's untimely demise. So, while everyone was in shock and mourning the passing of one of America's most handsome, most charming, most charismatic and, consequently, most popular presidents ever, an old, but great, man was quietly leaving this planet in a manner very befitting the time that he spent on it.

"You play the hand you're dealt. I think the game's worthwhile.”