Sunday, May 1, 2011

Without Exchanging a Word

Something dropped onto my radar recently concerning a theme that appears in Pink Hats and a Mack Truck that I wanted to bring up this morning. It came about while viewing the Matt Damon film, Hereafter, on DVD a couple of weeks ago. Now, I'm an unabashed Damon fan -- show me his name on a marquee and I'm good to go. And that's how I came to rent this one; I saw his name on the Red Box screen, barely glanced at the description, and clicked "rent." Initially, I thought the film confusing and wasn't clear whether Matt was the main character or simply received top billing for the sake of name recognition. Then things began to come together and patterns began to emerge.

The film is about a guy who has a gift for channeling messages from the hereafter to loved ones who remain in this life. It stems from a quite serious childhood illness and what he describes as changes in his brain functioning that resulted from his treatment. Although he once used his talent to make a living by charging for his services, he now sees it as a burden that prevents him from having truly meaningful personal relationships, especially romantic ones. As soon as he physically touches a person, if they've lost someone through death, an immediate connection is formed between him, the person, and their loved one in the beyond. If this sounds like your bread and butter film about mediums and spiritualism, trust me, there's a lot more to it than that.

My initial impression was, this scenario typifies the dilemma faced by psychotherapists. The idea of having intimate relationships with patients is precluded at the outset by the fact that you know things about them that they don't or perhaps, can't know, about you. Apart from the fact that such relationships constitute violations of ethics, the core of the matter is, they are inherently unequal. Doctor and patient do not share the same measure of relational ignorance about one another that is partly the basis for mutual romantic exploration. Similarly, Damon's character always knows too much and as soon as he reveals it, that marks the end of whatever else he might have hoped for. Even when one young woman assures him it won't make any difference, it does.

That is, until he meets lovely French writer, Marie Lelay, who drowned in the sunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2004. She was revived, of course, but only long after she reasonably ought to have been and she continues to have visions of her experience, something which others, including a lover, find difficult to take seriously. In the film's final scene, we see Lelay and Damon's character meeting and shaking hands. This time, however, the connection that he is accustomed to forming, doesn't. Relief is drawn across their faces and we know each has finally found someone with whom they can relate, freely and intimately.

Admittedly, I thought, this is way too simple, the idea that she didn't need to get a message from beyond because she'd already been there, herself having been the one she'd lost and found. Then I realized the film was confirming something Jessie's medical school adviser shared with her in chapter 10, The Beatles Connection: George Harrison. DO. Jessie tells how her first encounter with Bob left her feeling, not as she usually did with guys who were nearer her own age, like "mom" or merely a "girl," but very much like a grown and capable woman. Her adviser explained this was because Bob didn't need her to be anything or anyone other than herself and Jessie perceived this as liberating. The absence of need and the pressures it creates, formed a relational space in which she (and Bob as well, we discover later on) could be genuine and authentic. I think this is exactly what occurred between Damon's character and Marie.

One of the themes I wanted to reflect upon in Pink Hats was what constitutes the basis for the best kind of romantic relationships. There are some in which a person may become an inauthentic version of themselves. The expression of their true self is hampered by an unconscious willingness to take on a role, having gotten the sense it's what's being called for. As a result, one partner, often unknowingly, holds something back, something essential to them as an individual, something that makes them whole.

The soil in which love grows has to be richly fertilized with mutual acceptance, appreciation, admiration, and respect. Although Bob and Jessie naturally have different histories, as do the characters in Hereafter, they've each the kind of formative experiences that can produce stability and maturity -- Jessie lost her mother, Bob has been through a divorce -- enabling them to offer each other the gift of freedom, almost without exchanging a word. Jessie laid her hand on his arm the morning they met, scarcely knowing why, but it opened a door.

Sometimes a touch is all it takes.

(Creative Commons image by comedy_nose via Flickr)

Our Medical Marriage from How JFK Killed My Father by Richard M. Berlin, MD, Pearl Editions Publishers, copyright 2004)
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