Few things are certain in this world, but there is this: however critics feel about a movie, I will almost certainly disagree. There have been rare exceptions; the triteness of He’s Just Not That Into You, for example, pissed a lot of us off. Usually, however, I can be counted on as a contrarian. Such was the case with Passengers, which my husband and I saw in a theater with reclining leather chairs and a bar — hard to go wrong between those amenities and a Chris Pratt/Jennifer Lawrence pairing. I was delighted not to be the only one who enjoyed the flick and took note of its redeeming qualities.
A few weeks later, my husband and I returned to the theater, though now it was called the cinema, and we were shifted ten thousand miles from the leather-recliner situation, having moved to Sydney. It was our first adults-only getaway since we moved, so again: hard to take a stance other than Just Happy To Be Here. We saw the Will Smith vehicle Collateral Beauty upon recommendation from our older son’s therapist, whom we had flown over from the U.S. to help my son get acclimated to his new team, and who was also babysitting for us (so, you know, obligations). A couple of hours later, I had tears streaming down my face and a Screw you, critics attitude in my heart as I reasoned to my husband that saccharine overload has cinematic precedent: by all accounts, It’s a Wonderful Life opened to mixed reviews and only later became a classic.
So it was Will Smith’s worst movie opening ever; so it hovers at 12% on Rotten Tomatoes (Passengers looks nearly respectable in comparison, clocking in at 31%). So sue me: I like a flick with a solid redemption tale and a liberal dosing of grace even without subtlety as a forte (The Legend of Bagger Vance, anyone? No, just me? Fine; carry on). Often the power of these panned projects is their reliance upon relationship as what binds us together and frees us to be our better selves through the redemptive work of grace. Hollywood, of course, would deify this horizontal form of love as ultimate; most readers here recognize it as having a vertical source first. The theme, however, is the same: we need more than just ourselves. Life in relationship makes us more aware of our own humanity.
Try telling that to an introvert, though, and by introvert I mean me. I am coming off a solid month of togetherness with my two young boys after a cross-world move left us even more exhausted and disoriented than usual. My two-year-old, as far as I can tell, has taken it in stride — he’s just doing the same life in a different place, basically. But my older son, who (unfortunately for him) has inherited most of his mother’s eccentricities, has gone from jubilant to shattered in the span of minutes, multiple times a day, and trying to manage my own emotional upheaval while supporting him through his has been…tricky, to say the least. A common prayer over the past few weeks, other than the ever-frequent “help” regardless of hemisphere, has been WHY?! Why, God, have you tasked me with a job I have no idea how to do, and made the stakes so seemingly high? And by that I mean just my children’s well-being, THAT’S ALL.
Of course that’s not really true. Their ultimate well-being (I keep reminding myself) is not in my hands, but in divine ones. Tough to remember, though, when we’re in the throes of it daily without our support system or landmarks or even Goldfish anywhere to be seen. And this introverted mom, who refills her tanks with time spent alone in her head? She is struggling. We all are, in one way or another.
I’m no stranger to deep ambivalence and the confusion it affords; my children can feel like my oxygen one second and a pillow over my face the next. Their need can make me feel like a prisoner while somehow setting me free at the same time. I think most long-term love relationships carry this duality at their core; or, to put it another way, relationships be crazy, y’all. We need and make pains to be together while driving each other insane in the process; again, maybe it’s just me?
All I can tell you is that, in my own paradoxical emotional terrain, relationships are complex and often, the ones that I feel should be simplest, well…aren’t. I remember my counselor telling me that our family are the ones we walk the gospel with, not necessarily those to whom we’re connected by blood. I thought of this recently when I bounced briefly from a family event to retire to a solitary room and watch the revamped Gilmore Girls on Netflix. And a group of relatives were watching it down the hall. Did I feel guilty? Eh, maybe a bit. Was it the best memory from that get-together for me and an oasis in the midst of a glut of togetherness? Ya damn right. I still look back on those ten minutes with fondness.
Okay, so the disoriented introvert within me now realizes she’s spent the last few paragraphs arguing for the virtues of alone time in the middle of a post about relationship. Perhaps this is because I’m at a coffee shop surrounded by a bunch of talkative Aussies and some feral children. I guess the point I’m trying to make, or maybe believe, is that even among those of us who crave solitude, there exists a piece of our souls that needs to find our people; our tribe.
It’s what drives us to “like” Facebook groups and go to moms’ get-togethers against our inner self pleading to just stay home. And it’s what sends us to movies and art and literature and music. We need more than our own voice to give expression to our feelings. We have to connect to survive. (And sometimes we have to disconnect to survive, but I think I’ve already hammered that point.) But more importantly than some vague connection is that we must find those people and ideals with whom we truly identify on a deep level. And this is the hard part, because our people? They keep refusing to wear signs revealing them as such.
Mahershala Ali is nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Moonlight (a movie critics love and I haven’t seen yet so GET OFF MY BACK). In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, he mused on the emotional resonance of the film:
When you peel all the layers away, we’re all the same. We’re all dealing with wanting to be a part of a tribe. We all need to be supported. We all need a presence in our lives. That’s why this story has connected with people.
Well, I don’t know. Are we really all the same? So what’s, so what’s, so what’s the scenario (sorry)? I mean, right now I’m surrounded by people who call cookies biscuits and seem to be laid-back and happy all the time while I’m trying to remember if I took my Lexapro this morning. We are currently bombarded with news stories pitting political factions against each other and reminding us of those without a home while raising the question of whether they should be allowed to stay in ours. The world feels very us vs them right now, to the point that I wonder if we are past remembering the human condition that unites us, and the fact that each of us is leveled onto the same playing field by the grace of a God who deems us each worthy to have been created.
We want to belong, whether we do it more over email (me) or in person. And that word, belong, strikes me in its simple brilliance as a mixture of verbs: Be and long. This is what the human condition is to me so much these days, as I live stretched between homes and across continents and struggle to find my people here — finding a space to just be, even as I long for deeper connections here and the presence of loved ones back on U.S. soil. In some small way, could it reveal a glimmer of what Jesus must have felt during his earthly tenure, clearly out of place yet exactly where he was meant to be?
In the penultimate episode of this season’s Sherlock (prior to the finale, which critics hated; fine, it was kind of a mess), the detective himself says to his person, Watson, “It’s not a pleasant thought, John, but I have this terrible feeling from time to time that we might all just be human.” Such an assessment would be an elevation for Holmes, who often appears to operate independent of emotion, and a demotion for Watson, who is revealed to have flaws we didn’t expect. A level playing field after all. And for my part, I am reminded of the beauty and daily weakness of humanity in my own life, particularly when it comes to being with my people. This charge I am given to be wife and mother is arduous and glorious in alternating measure, and I fail at it terrifically while getting glimpses of glory along the way.
After a solid month at home with my boys in our new home, with insanity creeping in at the sound of every whine (theirs and mine), I pushed them along the sidewalk in their stroller one hot afternoon. My younger son sang his ABCs and my older son pointed ahead. “Go straight here, then turn left,” he directed, knowing the way just in case I couldn’t do it alone. Proving that the insanity, the month, the everything had been building something, binding us closer together, as he added, “and we’ll be home.”