I wasn’t exactly surprised when my mom’s health deteriorated significantly over the last few months, ending with her death. She had a stroke 15 years ago, couldn’t eat by mouth, and had been in the hospital multiple times. Still, even a few weeks ago I wasn’t ready for her life to end. From comments others made when we had visitation last week, my experience was common. The refrain I heard again and again from those who had lost one or both parents was “I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t prepared when it happened.”

Other than having an aide to help her with her shower, mom was toileting, washing, dressing, and feeding herself without assistance less than four months ago. I had been living with her because she couldn’t manage the household by herself, but she was mostly self-sufficient. I seldom spent even a half-hour a day providing direct help. Then she had a fall on March 21, injuring her shoulder and breaking her scapula. Suddenly, she needed assistance with everything. She couldn’t put any weight on her right hand, and that kept her from using her walker, getting up without assistance, and handling many self-care tasks. She went to a rehab facility for the better part of a month to learn how to live with her restrictions. When she came home, the family had arranged for an aide to be in the house twenty-five hours a week, and I was there the rest of the time. We hoped things would be easier for her when the scapula healed. The second week of May, she was given clearance to put full weight on her right arm. Surely she would work hard and return to something close to independence. She was so determined and had come back so many times before. It would be the same this time.

But it wasn’t. Less than a month later, she was back in the hospital with difficulty breathing and fluid in her lungs. Her heart was failing. She came home on oxygen, but went downhill rapidly. Roughly two weeks after being discharged she died.

I was startled by how rapidly she declined. It might have been simply the result of a medical process that had progressed much farther than I or her doctors realized, but I tend to think there was more going on. In particular, I think she had worked so hard in the past because she was hopeful about recovery. This time, she had lost any sense that life could be anything except suffering. After previous hospital or rehab stays, she was always happy to get home, but she didn’t say that this time. Home seemed to her a foreign place. She said that everything looked different. She also couldn’t remember her routines and had to be guided through them. She was really bothered by trailing the oxygen tubing behind her all the time. Faced with all this, I think she gave up. After visits from OT and PT didn’t make any difference, my siblings and I decided it was time to call hospice to help her be comfortable during whatever time she had left.

A few days earlier, when I still thought she might rally, I was impatient on a few occasions when trying to help her. She was getting confused about simple things, so tasks took longer I may have been a little frustrated with the amount of time that things were taking, but I realized after a couple episodes that a bigger reason for my impatience was that I was having trouble accepting how rapidly she was declining. Even more centrally, I wanted her to still act like a mom—to notice all I was trying to do, to think about my well-being, and to have the same pride in me that she had always had. But that motherly attentiveness, though not completely gone, was mostly beyond her capacity. Once I realized that, I was more patient. I didn’t want to burden her that way. I had enjoyed that gift of being mothered for so long; I could let it go in order to be what she needed. I’m starting to think that letting go in that way freed me from the intense longing that I could have felt after her death. Perhaps I wound up better prepared than I thought. Thanks, mom, for having mothered so well.


When I go out, I usually have an agenda that usually takes priority over the strangers I’m walking past. Occasionally there’s an exception, though. This poem describes a time I put my agenda aside and made connection.

A young man sat cross-legged on the sidewalk,
not looking up, playing his guitar, 
the only sign that he was panhandling was a sign:
“Homeless traveler, please help.”

I passed him easily the first time 
and went beyond two steps when coming back
before becoming gum-footed.
I had a few spare dollars and a few spare minutes,
so why not offer both? I turned around.

We talked a bit.
He was passing through, 
he liked the town but found it hard 
to be among the homeless here,
so he was leaving soon. 

Then he volleyed this:
“Would you like to hear a poem?”
He had been writing one about the friends
that heroin had stolen. I said yes,
so he flipped a battered notebook open. 

I remember words of sorrow, pain, and anger,
but most of all determination to express all this.
There must be many more like him—
heads down but eager to be heard.

I thanked him and he smiled, 
glued his palms together, 
and bent down in a bow.

Sirius XM Radio has recently been playing in rotation what it regards as the top 1000 country songs of all time. Country music aficionados are critically evaluating the selections here. I don’t listen to much country music, it being about my fourth favorite musical genre, but I’ve always appreciated how a good country song tells something true and occasionally even profound about the human condition. I thought I would comment on the three top songs on the Sirius XM list, which are a prison song, a heartache song, and a drinking song, respectively. Here they are:

#3 – Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash (1957)
#2 – Crazy – Patsy Cline (1961)
#1 – Friends in Low Places – Garth Brooks (1990)

These are all great songs, and I’ve loved them all for years. Is “Low Places” the best of the three? The protagonist crashes a fancy party that his ex and her current heartthrob are giving, then goes to a bar to drink his sorrows away. Not really the way your average life coach would tell you to deal with your problems! There’s even some intimidation in how the party crasher acts:

And I saw the surprise
And the fear in his eyes
When I took his glass of champagne
And I toasted you
Said, “Honey, we may be through,
But you’ll never hear me complain.”

If his redemption came just from drink, this would be just a cut above the typical drinking song, albeit with more recognition of how class differences affect relationships. But I don’t see the alcohol as the most important aspect in how he’s addressing his problems:

‘Cause I’ve got friends in low places
Where the whiskey drowns
And the beer chases
My blues away
And I’ll be okay
I’m not big on social graces
Think I’ll slip on down to the oasis
Oh, I’ve got friends in low places.

It’s the friends that make the difference, and we hear them in all their glory towards the end of the song. The friends are in low places; the implication is that they are genuine and accepting in a way that friends in high places could never be. So there’s a lot of truth in the song, though it only presents part of the picture; we don’t get any glimpse of what the next morning will be like.

How about Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”? It’s as soulful as “Friends” is rowdy, a beautiful tribute to heartbreak. She begins:

I’m crazy for feeling so lonely
I’m crazy
Crazy for feeling so blue.

Mourning for a lost love is indeed crazy, but it’s a craziness that most of us have experienced at one time or another. She can’t even console herself by claiming she didn’t expect this. In fact, she knew it would happen:

I knew you’d love me
As long as you wanted
And then someday
You’d leave me for somebody new.

This is the sort of thing we do; we trust the wrong person, we tell ourselves we’re likely to be hurt yet go ahead anyway. This is based in a deep truth; we are profoundly relational, made so by a relational God, and that yearning drives us relentlessly. What a beautiful, sorrowful song.

What about “Folsom Prison Blues?” Cash assumes the voice of a prison inmate who hears the sound of a train whistle. The protagonist reflects on how he committed a senseless murder, then imagines the scene on the train:

I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a-movin’
And that’s what tortures me.

Wow! What a beautiful portrayal of how we imagine the lives of others and wish we could be in their place. What a portrayal of guilt tinged with remorse, of the human desire for freedom, of how our minds can torture us. I’m deeply moved by both “Crazy” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” I’ve known lovesickness, but I’ve never known incarceration, and Cash touches me deeply with the plight of the prisoner and relates it to universal longings. That means that, of the three, I pick “Folsom Prison Blues” as the top country song of all time.

I wrote recently about my recent hospitalization for complications following prostate surgery. I mentioned the other patient in my room, but I didn’t say anything about our interactions. I think that’s a story worth telling.

I’ll call my roommate Dwayne. He is a 55-year-old who was transferred in for treatment of pneumonia in the wee hours of Sunday morning, a few hours after I was admitted. His wife stayed with him for several hours, but then left, and no one came to visit him during the next couple days that we shared the room. The room was “semi-private,” meaning  that there was very little privacy in evidence, so I learned a fair amount about him. At every shift change, the departing nurse came in with the arriving nurse to give the next shift an update on each patient–their diagnoses, reason for admission, and treatment plan. Usually the report is given in the patient’s room, so he overheard my report again and again, and I overheard his.

Dwayne’s pneumonia may have been his immediate problem, but it was by no means his only medical condition. He had diabetes, liver disease, and kidney disease. Wow! My problems were minor in comparison. I heard the diagnosis “end stage renal disease” repeated over and over. I had had a scare when first admitted regarding my kidneys, but by Monday morning I had been assured they were fine. He would never receive that assurance.

I felt sorry for Dwayne, but was also rather annoyed by him. He watched TV constantly, and I had little appreciation for his tastes–Wrestlemania, shoot-em-up action shows, lots of drooling over customized cars and trucks. The first night he talked on the phone at midnight, while I was trying to sleep, then watched TV for another couple hours, not bothering to keep the sound down. His phone then started ringing at 6 the next morning. There was a curtain separating us, but he certainly knew I was there and presumably could infer I would appreciate some quiet.

I probably should have asked him to turn down the sound, but I was in quite a bit of pain initially and thought that it, not he, was the main factor keeping me awake. Lying in bed that night, I started wondering about him, and my thoughts weren’t very charitable. What had been his role in causing all his medical problems? Lifestyle choices do affect our health, after all. He didn’t seem to be trying to get up and walk around despite the nurse’s statement that it would help with his pneumonia. Was that behavior typical for him; had he been neglecting his health for years?

I was prepared to ask him to turn his TV down the next night, but didn’t need to. I had a medical procedure late that night, and wasn’t ready to go to bed myself until near 2 the next morning. He had spent the previous afternoon at kidney dialysis. I started thinking about what his life must be like. How did it affect someone to have their blood cleaned by a machine every few days? I had overheard that he wasn’t able to work. Did he miss that? Where was he spiritually? Did he turn to God when things got difficult?

Tuesday morning, my doctor’s PA mentioned that she would come by that afternoon to discuss discharging me. I had only spoken briefly to Dwayne in the previous couple days. I had been too preoccupied with my own troubles to want to converse with him. Still, while waiting that afternoon for the PA’s visit, I started wondering whether I had been too uncommunicative. Jesus told his followers to let their light shine. Here was someone whose life seemed full of darkness, and I couldn’t think of anything I had said or did that he could have interpreted as light.

Finally, late in the afternoon, I realized that I would regret it if I didn’t at least try to have more of a conversation with him. His TV show was just ending, so I made a comment about it, then asked him about the dialysis. He was like a damned up river suddenly released, gushing forth the story of his last few years. A doctor had prescribed too much medication for his diabetes, and he had felt worse and worse. After about a year like this, he was admitted to the hospital; doctors were shocked with the meds he was on. His diabetes could have been managed with minimal medication, but the extra medication had irreparably damaged his kidneys. He had talked to a lawyer, but a malpractice case probably wouldn’t prevail in court. He wasn’t able to work because of dialysis three days a week. He tried to find part time work the other two days, but no one would hire him when they learned of his condition. His wife had to work so they could keep medical insurance. He had “lots of toys” at home, but didn’t get much satisfaction anymore from going out riding his motorcycle, ATV, and the like. His doctors said he was a poor candidate for a kidney transplant because of his other medical problems. He got down at times and thought of giving up. He wouldn’t do anything to himself but knew that he could stop dialysis and soon be dead. He had a granddaughter, and thinking of her helped him keep going

I asked whether he had a church family; he didn’t, but sometimes went to his daughter’s church. I asked if I could pray with him, and he readily agreed. After we prayed, I gave him my phone number and encouraged him to call me if he needed to talk.

About then, the PA came in, saying she would have been in earlier to discharge me but she had a rough afternoon. I didn’t give her my explanation for why she was delayed. God had been prompting me to lift the bushel of self-preoccupation off my head and shine into the darkness of that hospital room. Knowing how slow I am to realize that the Spirit is urging me to do something, He made sure He gave me plenty time to hear and respond. I don’t know if Dwayne will ever call, or if he has thought since then about our talk. At the time, though, we seemed to connect well. Hopefully, I won’t be so slow to reach out to the next Dwayne that crosses my path.






On his blog The Quest for the Good Life, Andy Tix wrote a post titled “Confessions of a Trump Skeptic.” He admitted to having been overly preoccupied with politics over the past six months and to having despaired over the results of the election in the U.S. I can relate; in fact, I wrote a similar post in November. What struck me most about Andy’s post, though, was his account of the Introduction to Psychology class he taught the day after the election was held:

” I was expecting people to be confused and fearful like me, but what I’ll most remember were some students ‘high-fiving’ in celebration.

“The topic of the day just so happened to be the social psychology of prejudice, and so I began the class hesitantly asking my students to comment how their reading connected with their experience of the election. A young woman cautiously raised her hand, and remarked that ‘the election has caused me to shut down in fear.’ I asked why, again assuming she would be like me. I’ll never forget her response: she said it had felt impossible to tell anyone how she had voted for our new President-elect because of worry that they would regard her as a bigot.”

Andy quickly realized that he had made assumptions about those who had voted differently from him that in many cases were inaccurate. In other words, he had stereotyped, thinking of Trump supporters as all alike. He had judged them as “uncaring, ignorant, unenlightened fools.” Perhaps some are. But for every white supremacist or Neo-Nazi who voted for the Republican ticket there were dozens who were more concerned with issues such as the decline of the middle class, the growth of government regulation, or the character of the Democratic nominee. Among them were both of my siblings and my mother.

Andy includes in his post a response he gave on Facebook to a friend who was struggling with issues of faith and politics. He wrote the following:

“Part of the lesson here for me is to be humble enough to really try to understand the appeal of a man like Trump to basically good people like many of my family members and friends who voted for him. I feel like I need to do a better job of listening to people different from me–particularly those with different ways of thinking about issues such as these.”

There’s an irony in our not listening well to those different from us. Logically, we are least likely to be able to correctly predict the thought patterns of those who are most different from us. These, then, would be the people we would need to listen to most carefully in order to get any sort of understanding of how they reason about issues. In contrast, those who express opinions much like our own on a wide variety of issues probably think about the world much as we do, so we don’t need to listen as carefully or probe as deeply in order to understand their reasoning processes. Why then, do we do the opposite of what makes sense– why do we listen only briefly and superficially to those who differ from us, but carefully to those who share our opinions? And why then are we so sure we understand those who are different from us when we haven’t given them much of a hearing?

Perhaps part of the reason we tend not to listen to those who are different from us is the outgroup homogeneity effect–the tendency to view all members of some group of which we aren’t members as alike. In contrast, we see the members of our own group as more varied. I’m part of the ‘group’ of Clinton voters, but offhand can think of at least a dozen people I know who are members of what is for me the ‘outgroup:’ Trump voters. They all are white, but other than this one common feature they vary tremendously–in demographic characteristics such as age and gender, but also in their degree of enthusiasm for their candidate and their reasons for voting as they did. I’ve talked with a few of them in depth about the election, and it’s evident that the differences among them outweigh the commonalities.

Andy mentioned the need for humility. Besides empathy, that’s probably the quality most lacking as we look across the political divide. The psalmist writes about taking a stance of humility before God:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother….” (From Psalm 131, NRSV)

I wonder whether psalmist’s aversion to occupying his thoughts “with things too great and marvelous for me” pertains not only to the proper way to approach God but also the proper way to think about others. My imagination can never encompass the totality of their feelings, beliefs, and motives. It’s only when in humility I give up my conviction that I know what they are thinking that I can truly hear what they have to say. That’s something I have to remind myself of again and again.

Image from

Image from

Julie Beck, a writer at the Atlantic, recently wrote an article about how friendships change over time. She notes:

“The voluntary nature of friendship makes it subject to life’s whims in a way more formal relationships aren’t. In adulthood, as people grow up and go away, friendships are the relationships most likely to take a hit.”

Even in the social media age, when we can keep track of friends from long ago no matter where we each happen to live, there are some friendships from earlier phases of life that aren’t maintained. Others are maintained, but barely: seeing facebook posts a couple times a year written by someone I worked with 20 years ago means we are still in touch, but the fiber of connection is stretched so thin that it makes little difference to either of us.

Beck describes the developmental trajectory of friendships. In childhood, a friend is mostly someone to play with. In adolescence, there is more talk, more self-disclosure, and friends are important in our search to discover who we are. Young adults are “more likely to seek out friends who share their values on the important things.” Young adults are also quite mobile, so many friends get left behind as we travel to get educated or take a job. By middle adulthood, we’re all quite busy, shuttling between work, marriage, and parenting. “[I]t’s easier to put off catching up with a friend than it is to skip your kid’s play or an important business trip.” Thus, friendship researcher William Rawlings of Ohio University found that middle-aged adults defined friendship as “being there” for each other, but actually had little time to spend together. Busy middle-aged adults make relatively few new friends other than among people they already see regularly, such as co-workers.

Later in life, though, kids leave home and we work less, or not at all, and we have more time. Some of that time is devoted to friends. As Beck indicates, “People tend to reconnect with old friends they’ve lost touch with. And it seems more urgent to spend time with them…” Of course, some old friends are lost for good. Others live at such a distance that it is difficult to get together. It’s not impossible, though. There is one friend I’ve known for over twenty years that I go to Georgia a couple times a year to see. I also have a high school friend who lives in California but was able to spend time with when he came to Michigan twice since 2012.

I grew up in West Michigan and returned here in 2012 to help my parents. There are several old friends in the area with whom I thought I would be spending time, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I’ve seen a few of them briefly, but only meet regularly with one–the one I had made time for throughout the decades I was really busy. I’m not fully retired, so my desire to renew old friendships may increase once I do quit working. For now, though, rather than reconnect with old friends, I’m devoting more time to friends who were already a priority for me, and I’m making new friends.

I’ll write more about why I think I’ve maintained strong friendships with some people but don’t have much interest in renewing friendships with others with whom I was once close. I’m curious about other people’s experiences, though. How have your friendships changed over the years, and why have you kept the friendships you have?

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

I recently saw “The End of the Tour,”  the movie about Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) interviewing writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) shortly after Wallace’s landmark novel Infinite Jest was published in 1996. Lipsky travels to Wallace’s modest rented home in Bloomington, Illinois, then accompanies him on a trip to Minneapolis for the last stop of the book tour. The movie is a long conversation between two intelligent men in their 30s, one probing, the other alternately spilling out his thoughts and lamenting the artificiality of their interaction. These seem to be two men struggling with despair, only one of whom realizes the struggle is occurring.

In alluding to despair, I’m thinking of the way that Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the term. In his Sickness Unto Death, he describes despair as a condition of the self. Here’s how I recently summarized the ways Kierkegaard thought we despair:

“We can despair in two ways, according to Kierkegaard. First, a person can wish to be rid of  him- or herself, that is, can be unwilling to be oneself, a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the despair of weakness.” Second, the person can despair to be a self, that is, can despair because one desires to be a self that one cannot be, a condition referred to as ‘the despair of defiance.’”

It doesn’t take much effort to see that David Foster Wallace (the Wallace of the film, that is, who might not have resembled the real man) was well acquainted with despair. He tells Lipsky that he is addicted to junk television (we see one TV-watching binge during the movie). Any addiction, TV included, can be considered either an attempt to escape from oneself or an attempt to be a self other than who one is (or both). Of the two possibilities, Wallace seems mainly to have been trying to get away from himself.

Wallace seems quite aware of his propensity towards despair. In 1988, eight years before Lipsky’s interview, he was hospitalized and put on suicide watch. He says to Lipsky (all quotes are my best attempts to transcribe the dialogue from the movie, but I can’t vouchsafe their accuracy), “I was a 28 year old who had exhausted a couple ways of living.” After describing the experience in the hospital, he added, “and when that happens you become unprecedentedly willing to explore some other avenues of how to live.” I haven’t read Infinite Jest, but I understand that it can be considered just such an exploration of ways to live. Wallace isn’t so sure his search has unearthed a workable solution. Looking back to the time he fell apart, He tells Lipsky, “I don’t think we change. I think I still have the same parts of me. I’m trying hard to find a way to just let them live.” He was well aware that despair still lurked within.

Wallace sees contemporary culture as making it particularly difficult for him (or anyone else, for that matter) to be a self capable of wholeness. That culture produced the endless flood of TV shows constantly available to soothe his angst. He foresees a time in which the internet and virtual reality become even more insiduous pathogens capable of infecting and  destroying the self. He says at one point that his writing is about “how easy it is to be seduced off your path because of the way the culture is.” He then mentions what he fears: “What if I become a parody of that?”

Wallace seems to have thought that a genuine connection with another human being would aid him in his struggles. He opens up to Lipsky with that end in mind. That effort proves fruitless, since Lipsky has no intention of being genuine. He would rather present a counterfit self in order to charm Wallace and thereby obtain material for his Rolling Stone article. Wallace at one point says that literary success has made him feel like a whore, but Lipsky is the real whore here, prostituting his humanity in an attempt to gain success.

Lipsky wishes to be a self he can’t be–he wishes to be an acclaimed author like Wallace–but, as portrayed by Eisenberg, anyway, doesn’t have the insight to realize that this striving is a form of despair. As Lipsky prepares to drive away after the interview is completed, Wallace leans into his car window and says, “I’m not so sure you want to be me.” Good words of warning for those times when we start thinking that we will be at peace if only we manage to be someone other than who we are.

I recently read an interview at the Atlantic website with Miya Tokumitzu, author of the book Do What You Love and Other Lies about Success and Happiness. In the original article out of which the book grew, Tokumitzu wrote:

Do what you love“There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.”

Most workers are dehumanized, in her view, because most work isn’t lovable–it’s dreary and mindless. Only those from privileged backgrounds have the luxury of choosing work they love rather than work they need to survive. And those eager to do work they are passionate about regardless of the circumstances are often mistreated by employers:

“Ironically, DWYL reinforces exploitation even within the so-called lovable professions where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labor is the new norm: reporters required to do the work of their laid-off photographers, publicists expected to Pin and Tweet on weekends, the 46 percent of the workforce expected to check their work email on sick days. Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.”

In the Atlantic interview Tokumitzu suggests that the impetus behind DWYL is the desire for happiness. She thinks that the WWII generation was still under the influence of the Protestant work ethic, which views work as a calling, but the Boomer generation discarded calling in favor of a culture of the self, characterized by “thinking about what makes me happy and how to improve myself.” She thinks that “the virtue strain of work and the self strain of work combined in the late 1970s and 1980s, and in a way pleasure-seeking became the virtue.”

When people seek work they love, are they just seeking pleasure, though? Tokumitzu thinks that DWYL is a form of self-indulgence, but I suspect it derives more from a desire for self-fulfillment. And self-fulfillment isn’t just a more acceptable way to speak about being self-centered. Charles Taylor suggests that there is a moral force behind the modern drive to self-fulfillment:

“What we need to explain is what is peculiar to our time. It’s not just that people sacrifice their love relationships, and the care of their children, to pursue their careers. Something like this has perhaps always existed. The point is that today many people feel called to do this, they feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would be somehow wasted or unfulfilled if they didn’t do it.” The Ethics of Authenticity, p. 17

For Taylor, what these workers are pursuing is not pleasure or happiness but authenticity. Taylor briefly traces the history of the moral ideal of authenticity from the Romantic era until recent times. A particularly important contribution was that of German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who suggested that each of us has an original way of being human. We each need to discover our own way of being human, ignoring societal pressures that would distract us from this quest. Aren’t those who want to do work they love seeking to be authentic in this way? Aren’t they trying to be true to their unique nature in the work they do?

Taylor points out that this struggle for authenticity won’t succeed if it is just an inner quest. Defining our authentic selves requires interaction with others; it is a dialogic process. Also, defining ourselves can only be done successfully in the context of some “horizon of significance,” that is, some perspective on what constitutes a meaningful or significant life, whether this horizon comes from God or nature or science or some other source.

If Taylor is right, then it may make good sense to do what we love. We just need to be in dialog with others when looking for what we love. We also need to think of the horizon of significance in which that love operates. I wrote a few years ago about work and calling, pointing out that the idea of calling has been secularized and arguing for a recovery of a more sacred sense of being called for a particular purpose. Perhaps such an infusion of overarching meaning into the workplace would mean that in doing what we love we would be true to ourselves in a way that doesn’t make personal happiness the sole criterion of what we should do.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues

I recently saw Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic now in theaters. The movie shuttles between the ’60s, when Brian (played by Paul Dano) was the creative genius behind the Beach Boys, and the ’80s, subsequent to major problems with addiction and mental illness, when Brian (John Cusack) was exploited by Svengali-like psychologist Eugene (“Gene”) Landy (Paul Giamatti). The 60s scenes are about genius and psychic torment; the 80s scenes, apparently meant to be about love and mercy (after a Wilson song by that name), are really more the story of a heroine’s adventure.

Brian Wilson

Brian’s genius is amply illustrated in the recording studio, where he leads musicians through the creation of the “Pet Sounds” tracks. As portrayed by Dano, Brian is frenetic and joyful while making music, fully confident in what he was doing. It may be something of a misnomer to call the process “making music;” Brian is acutely sensitive to sounds of all sorts, and his consciousness is devoted largely to internally replaying, revising and combining these sounds into the music that then spills out in a geyser of song.

Confident in the studio, Brian is troubled everywhere else. His intense stage fright keeps him from touring with the band. He craves approval. Though some people praised him, he can’t handle two who didn’t–cousin and fellow Beach Boy Mike Love and his father, Murry Wilson (Bill Camp), who had been fired as manager of the band.

The movie makes a good deal of Brian’s relationship with his father. Murry had been physically abusive–we learn that Brian was almost deaf in his right ear because when he was a child his father had hit that side of his face. In one poignant scene, Brian plays his recently composed “God Only Knows” for his father, obviously looking for support. The elder Wilson scowls, refuses to comment, throws in a dig about having been fired as manager, and finally renders his judgment: the song is “wishy-washy … a love song and a suicide note.” In another scene Murry disrupts a recording session to tout a group he recently signed that plays the music he thinks the Beach Boys should (but aren’t) playing. Thanks for all the support, dad.

This being the 60s, Brian uses drugs to escape, but they just make it more difficult to cope with life. He reveals at one point that he started hearing voices in 1963; a hallucinating brain is typically not improved by hallucinogens.

There was another approach that friends offered Brian as a way to deal with his demons, but this, too, was counterproductive. In one scene, Brian is at a dinner celebrating the success of his song “Good Vibrations.”

One friend says “You can do whatever you want”

Another asks, “What are you going to do with all that freedom?”

Brian smiles wanly and asks “Has my dad called?”

60s-style freedoms don’t do him much good in the prison in which his childhood has incarcerated him. Freedom without a sense of direction is terrifying, not liberating.

It’s not surprising that the 80s find Brian in the thrall of a psychologist who serves as something of a stern father figure. As Gene–the psychologist–tells it, he saved Brian from himself, and indeed Brian weighed 300 lb., was bedridden, and was addicted to drugs and alcohol when Gene took control. Gene may have kept Brian from dying. Years later, though, Gene’s control even extends to yelling at Brian for taking a bite of hamburger after Gene had told him to wait. In the Drama Triangle, Gene has gone from Rescuer to Persecutor, while Brian has remained in the Victim role.

We see the middle-aged Brian largely through the eyes of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a Cadillac saleswoman uncertain of what to make of this perplexed man who wanders in her showroom and, before buying a car, rambles on about his difficulty dealing with his brother’s death. Brian doesn’t filter what he says, just like he couldn’t filter out environmental noise in the 60s. Is this lack of filters a sign of genius or mental illness? Maybe a little of each.

Dr. Landy and his minions invade the dealership and whisk Brian away, but Brian manages to contact Melinda by phone and they start dating. I think we are meant to believe that Brian was freed from Gene by virtue of Melinda’s love for him, but I have a somewhat different reading of this part of the movie. Melinda is clearly troubled by Gene’s mistreatment of Brian and Brian cowering in response. She urges Brian to resist, but, when he remains passive, she orchestratedsa lawsuit against Gene by Brian’s family that eventually leads to Gene being barred from ever contacting Brian. Love may be present; Brian and Melinda did eventually marry. In the immediate situation, though, Melinda seems to be motivated mainly by a desire to save someone who doesn’t seem able to save himself. She is a heroine who slays the dragon and rescues the gentle-man in distress.

The viewer is left with some questions. Having been passive while others fought for his freedom, did Brain remain quiescent or did he eventually take charge of his life? Did his problems with addiction surface again? What sort of relationship developed between him and Melinda? Successful biopics typically leave us with questions such as these; that’s what makes them good stories. I walked out of the movie with greater appreciation both of Brian’s music and of the struggles he went through to bring that music into the world.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar questions. Do be aware there are some spoilers contained in my comments.

I recently saw The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the British mathematician and computer pioneer. Turing was instrumental at cracking the Enigma code, the supposedly unbreakable code used by the Germans in World War II. Most of the movie is a simplified account of the challenges and triumphs of Turing and his team of codebreakers, but Turing is also seen as a young adolescent (played by Alex Lawther) and in the early ’50s, when he was arrested and convicted for gross indecency in the form of homosexual relations.

Turing’s life ended tragically; he died by cyanide poisoning at age 41. As the movie notes, his death was ruled as a suicide; an alternative explanation that has some credibility is that his was an accidental death. He had been convicted and sentenced to hormonal therapy to reduce his sexual drive a year prior to his death, and the movie implies that these events prompted his suicide. He may, indeed, have been a victim of intolerance towards homosexuality. However, he was reportedly not despondent before his death. As I watched the movie, it seemed to me that there were other ways besides being discriminated against for homosexuality that his life was less than ideal.

Turing was socially awkward in the extreme, and, as played by Cumberbatch, seems to fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. He doesn’t understand or participate in the sort of social interactions that everyone around him takes to naturally. He doesn’t understand most jokes or sarcasm, and, when a colleague says, “We’re going to get some lunch,” Turing takes this as a statement of fact rather than an invitation to join the group.

Perhaps his social difficulties were exacerbated by being bullied while at boarding school (assuming the movie account is accurate). He was befriended by one other boy and they developed a close bond. They parted for the holidays; when school resumed, Alan was informed by the headmaster that his friend died of leukemia during the break. Alan was shaken, but, lip quivering, he assured the headmaster that he didn’t really know the dead boy very well. Losing one’s only friend but pretending it doesn’t matter–that’s not good preparation for a life of emotional stability. Later, Turing names the machine (an early computer) he built to crack the Enigma code “Christopher” after his dead childhood friend, though, characteristically, he doesn’t tell anyone where the name came from. The movie hints that eventually he grew fonder of the machine than of any living human.


Having been injured by peers and not being able to read social cues, Turing understandably found social interactions to be difficult. His way of handling such situations only worsened matters, though. He was abrasive and arrogant, disdaining anyone whose intellect he regarded as mediocre. Predictably, he alienated the members of the team that worked under him. Fortunately, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a member of the team who was herself an outsider because of gender, helped him achieve at least some measure of conviviality with them. Turing and Clarke were actually engaged briefly; when Turing told her of his homosexuality, Clarke was accepting, but Turing broke off the engagement rather cruelly (or, to be charitable, insensitively). He was later arrested not for an ongoing same-sex relationship but for a casual homosexual encounter. Regardless of his sexual orientation, it’s tragic that Turing was apparently unable or unwilling to have any sort of ongoing intimate relationship with another person.

There is one more element in the film’s depiction of Turing’s life that might have made his existence quite difficult. Once the Enigma code was broken, the British couldn’t use every intercepted communication to thwart German war plans; the Germans would have soon realized the code had been deciphered and would change it. Instead, only some of the information could be acted on, meaning that many Allied soldiers, sailors, and civilians had to be left to face attacks without being forewarned. Turing’s unit was tasked with calculating the probability that acting on a given bit of information would arouse suspicion, then determining when warning was to be given and when it wasn’t. In other words, as Cumberbatch said at one point, they were playing God for the last few years of the war.

What an incredible moral burden: to have to make decisions that affected who lived and who died! Turing’s interpersonal difficulties and status as a deviant in his society, though huge problems in their own right, seem to me less burden than having to carry awareness that thousands had died because of the intelligence that had been withheld. Which of us can play God without it ruining us? I may quibble with God about some of what he does, but could never endure being in his place like Turing and his team were. They have my full and heartfelt sympathy.

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