Just like Christmas traffic, this post may seem convoluted; but bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this. Really.
One of my favorite movies is Empire of the Sun. Another favorite of mine is Rescue Dawn. The two movies have a great deal in common; and I’m not talking about Christian Bale, who stars as the main character in both of them. They are both about war and the strength of the human spirit. When these two concepts become the backdrop for a story, that story often captivates me. (‘Captivate.’ How apropos, eh?) Strangely, it doesn’t have the same effect on me to watch movies drawing upon the human spirit when winning sports matches or surviving expedition challenges – you know, where the underdog team finally gets the victory or the wilderness wanderer makes it back to civilization. I guess, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “You signed up for it. What did you expect?”
Yeah, and people sign up to go to war. Dieter Dengler, the true-life hero on which the Rescue Dawn protagonist is based, even wanted to give his life for a nation that wasn’t his native country. That’s partially what made the movie so incredible. In war, people can become like animals. The lines of black and white are so blurred that ethics are thrown out the window. The situation is so extreme there is only reaction. In all candor, I often wonder what I would do in extreme circumstances – if I would make the right decisions. I have a nagging doubt that, in a desperate moment, I wouldn’t. It’s the little clues that bring me to that conclusion.
I started thinking about this when I ran a red light a couple of days ago. It’s that rotten Christmas traffic. I justified it because of the long lines of cars, the long wait, and because my light time was shortened by the cars that previously ran the light for a good twenty seconds. As I passed under that blaring crimson reminder, I saw the line of cars ahead, waiting to enter my lane. Seconds later, I slowed down and signaled for a car to take the place in front of me. Why? Why did I just hammer through the traffic light to decide to wait behind yet another car? Simple: Inside that car was a person. I could see him. I think he was in his seventies. His white-haired wife was beside him. The red light was an emotionless mechanism to direct me, and a horde of other cars, into systematic obedience. While I happen to take issue with systematic control, I do believe in submitting to a greater, collaborative cause to protect and help those around me. That’s why it bothers me when I’m not keeping my part of the bargain, even in seemingly insignificant things like running a light.
That system to protect and aid each other is what is lacking in war. Even countries that don’t consider themselves at “war” know that when there is no peace – no agreement to coexist together – the situation is dire and intense. The environment is hostile, and the mind has to work within tightly constructed boundaries that are never clearly delineated. It’s an ever-shrinking prison that comes down to little option for escape without harming self or someone else for survival.
Empire of the Sun has a scene where Jamie is making his way across the British/American prison camp trading and winning certain items to obtain other items that, in having this delivery service, grant him privileges. His ingenuity and perseverance makes me shake my head in wonder, while his dusty, angular face and empty expression depict the telling signs of his harsh life. His actions become more and more like a mouse being chased by a cat, scrabbling to survive, than a boy around his own kind. The end of the movie makes me bawl every time. Jamie’s eyes go from stony, dark lifelessness to a glimmer – a small window – of recognition. It’s hope. It’s a chance to feel again, to know where he belongs. He closes his eyes slowly as his mother embraces him. He can’t go back to the child he was, but he’s no longer alone. There is someone there to take his part, someone to see he has what he needs. And he closes his eyes, finding peace at last after his long journey.
The same day I ran the red light and let a car go ahead of me, I finally made it to the store for toilet paper, soup, and cough medicine. I didn’t try to make conversation; I was trying my best not to cough on the cashier. I looked behind me, and the next shopper was a woman whose hair looked like it had been fixed three days ago. Her makeup was dried to her face, and she had raccoon eyes. Her one purchase was a case of beer. It wasn’t her appearance that was startling; she didn’t seem to notice anything. Even the cashier was making note of the woman’s manner. Her eyes darted places, but never looked at anyone directly. It was like she existed in an inner panic with some kind of mental monologue going on.
I wanted so badly to catch her eye. I wanted to ask if she was okay. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t find the courage to insert myself into her world.
I think the worst wars are the ones going on inside. There the battles of the mind rage, where the captive stares out upon a hostile world created by events of the past that cannot be put to rest until someone comes who knows who that person really is, where he/she belongs. Why does the human spirit rise above? I think it’s because of hope, the tenacious belief that somewhere there is help and peace.
In the spirit of the season, I’d like to give you the gift of a quote from three men who wrote that their words were given to them directly from the Spirit of God. Their names were Paul, Peter, and John, and they often began their letters with this greeting:
Grace and peace to you.
Grace means divine help. May you find divine help and peace. And may you have the tenacity and courage to rise above the wars you face.