Last night I watched a movie with my kids, The Road, a post apocalyptic story of a father and son traveling the barren earth trying to stay safe while being followed by cannibals and others willing to do harm to survive. The boy was born after the unnamed catastrophe that afflicted the earth, so the gray devastation was how the world had always looked to him. Throughout their journey, the father was trying to show the son that he couldn’t trust anyone, that if they shared what they had they would suffer and that he must learn to see things differently if he wanted to survive.
The son was about 8 years old and in spite of all he must have seen in his short life, he wanted to help everyone they encountered and had a lot of difficulty with the violence required to survive. He was the brightest, most innocent light against this dark, depressing backdrop.
We rented this movie from Netflix because it sounded like it might be suspenseful and just scary enough to be entertaining, but not enough to induce nightmares. I suppose there was a little of both of those qualities present in the film, but the thing that stood out to me was the heart of the little boy.
I do not see that boy as being different from any child. In fact, considering the recent events in Japan, I believe there are many children currently facing a version of the nightmare presented in the film.
Children are amazing. My kids are much older, the youngest are teenagers, but I have often been surprised at what gentle, optimistic souls they are no matter what happens in their world. I protect them as best I can, but they have not had it all that easy all of the time. They haven’t had a lot of the things that so many kids take for granted and yet, they never complain or whine about their circumstances. They are truly an inspiration to me at times.
This movie touched my heart so deeply that I thought about it for hours afterward. I cried pretty hard a few times at the pure innocence of the little boy. It makes me tear up now just thinking about it. Even when they themselves had gone long periods without food, the boy wanted to share what little they had with passing strangers on the road. In one instance, they came across an old man who immediately thought they were going to rob him. Instead, the boy convinced his father to give the man a can of fruit they had scavenged from an abandoned farmhouse. After agreeing reluctantly and telling his son that no, they could not keep him, the father invited the old man to eat dinner with them. After dinner they parted ways and the pair continued on their journey.
This movie was so profound because regardless of the backdrop or landscape, we all suffer, it’s a fact of life. It’s one of the first things I learned from Buddhism–life is suffering and the cause of suffering is attachment, clinging and grasping. Much of the suffering we humans experience is self-created and can be relieved by putting things into perspective and letting go of attachment. I would say that the father in the movie suffered because he felt he had to hold onto everything so there would be enough for him and his son. And the father was willing to do things to survive that his little boy’s mind and heart could not comprehend. As is human nature before the time we are taught otherwise, this boy’s heart was filled with compassion and a desire to ease the suffering he saw all around him.
There was one scene when the father was chastising the son about his generous nature and he told the boy the reason he was able to be that way was that he was not the one who had to worry about things, about protecting them and making sure they survive. The boy replied that yes, he was the one who had to worry and be concerned about how they were going to make it. So honest and yet, so revealing that in every circumstance, no matter how dire or bleak, we have a choice as to how to respond. The father understandably responded to their situation with fear, but the boy responded with love and compassion. It was beautiful.
Part of me understands this boy on such a fundamental level. I was raised by fearful parents. Fearful and capable of violence, just like the dad in the movie. My family also did all they could to convince me that the world is a bad and dangerous place full of people who wish to harm me and take everything from me. My family had a strong work ethic, but also had a kill or be killed attitude. It’s one of the reasons I never felt like I fit in and probably one the biggest reasons I am estranged from them today.
Though the movie ended while the little boy was still a child, I wonder if the character was able to keep that childlike innocence. I truly believe that cultivating such innocence in oneself is what makes the difference between living a life of cold hardness and a life of open-hearted compassion. Compassion does not come from the rational, ego-driven place in us, it comes from the heart. And it is cultivated by keeping things in perspective. The father in the movie was afraid of someone taking what little he was able to accumulate for him and his son. I’m sure he didn’t actively want to hurt anyone, but he was willing to resort to violence to protect their stuff. But the truth is, nobody can steal from us what we give with an open hand and an open heart.
Suffering comes from attachment. There is no thing worth the suffering that comes with trying to keep it. And there is only one constant in life, change. Impermanence is the way of things. We will lose everything we cling to, the clinging only means we will suffer as we lose those things.
We are born into this life alone with nothing and we will leave it the same way. No amount of clinging or grasping can change that. So maybe the key to making the in between parts more peaceful and joyous lies in letting go.
It’s been a long time since a movie has had such an effect on me. The Road goes straight to my list of favorites and I look forward to thinking more about the messages contained in it.
May all creatures have peace and ease of well-being.