Riding the Rails with Psyche
Sometimes a work of art comes along that changes your life. As a native Los Angelena, I find film a particularly powerful medium to effect that change. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you’ve got what my daughter “in the industry” rates as an Academy Award-worthy movie and what scads of people can’t wait to talk about in their psychotherapy sessions. Motion pictures are both literally and metaphorically “moving images.” At their best, they bring the light of greater consciousness to those dark recess of emptiness and longing, violence and rage, envy and greed, sorrow and stuckness, anxiety and depression, and innumerable compulsions and obsessions that bedevil us odd creatures, blessed and cursed with the knowledge that, despite our best efforts, this glorious life we've been given is replete with limit and loss and we ourselves will one day die.
For me, The Railway Man is one of those sorts of masterpieces. It’s what some might call a small film, made on a relatively low budget and released at exactly the wrong time of year to signal a potential Oscar campaign, but it’s big in ways that truly matter, big in the same way that indigenous peoples speak of a big dream. One that has meaning for the whole tribe and holds the potential to jiggle social and political perspectives, open heads and hearts, and - if we believe in tipping points or the collective unconscious - even alter the direction of our cultural evolution, if only just a bit.
The true story of traumatized World War II vet Eric Lomax, The Railway Man is a brilliantly directed (by Jonathan Teplitzky) adaptation (by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson) of Lomax’ book. The film is blessed with particularly moving performances by two extraordinary actors: Colin Firth, whose shoes most of my girlfriends would happily see tucked under their beds any night, and Hiroyuki Sanada, a less well known actor who could definitely leave his parked under mine.
The female lead is played by Nicole Kidman, of whom I have a touching memory, having met her on what I anticipated would be a rather bleak Mother’s Day, with my son out of the country and my daughter needing to work on Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge junket. My thoughtful girl had invited me to join her on her working holiday at the Four Seasons Hotel; she knew her mama would want to be with her particularly on that day, and besides, Moulin Rouge was a rare film musical that we both loved. I shook Nicole’s hand while she was getting made-up for a day’s work of grueling back-to-back interviews. She was luminously beautiful in the flesh, but that flesh was pretty fragile. The hand that shook mine felt as delicate as filo dough, and tears sprung to her sparkling blue eyes when I told her, quite sincerely, that I’d thoroughly enjoyed her performance in the film. “Really?” she asked, with a catch in her voice. “Really,” I assured her.
And I really loved her character in The Railway Man, with her intuitive capacity to see beneath the surface of her husband’s entrapment in trauma and her faithfulness to her deeper vision of all he was born to be. It’s a gift that good mothers – and good lovers – have, and should be a requirement of any therapist or analyst hanging out a shingle. Being a gift, it’s not something we can necessarily will for ourselves, but we can, as author Elizabeth Gilbert suggested in her marvelous 2009 TED Talk, open our arms nice and wide to receive the gift flying through the ether should the gods be willing to fling it in our general direction. Do I mean that? Yes. Really.
Colin Firth received his own gift in this instance with great dignity. The finesse with which he conveys the suffering of a man longing to have a feelingful life but held down by the shaming and torture he experienced at the hands of his Japanese army captors is excruciatingly right on. It’s the kind of performance that gets under the skin and yanks us into knowing what he’s feeling, whether we want to or not.
But I have to say that the actor who is already changing my life is the brilliant Sanada, who plays his part with the quiet truth of a sunrise. For it is he who must consider how or whether to contend with the evil that he’s done. That’s the one that yanked me in big time. It’s what Jung aptly called “the shadow,” what my courageous patients wrestle with in the work we do in my consulting room, what I had damned well better be grappling with myself if I’m to have the honor of working with them. It also comprises a good chunk of what my protagonist Fleur imagines in that awful void of hers in my novel The History of My Body and in the sequel I’m cursing and crawling to finish as soon as she’ll let me.
I was born a romantic. It’s been a curse and a blessing. I fall to my knees before the sun, the moon, a David Austin Ambridge rose, a dove’s call, a crow’s glide, Joan Baez’s voice, the 2nd movement of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, the innocence of the young. But there’s a grave danger in all that unfettered ecstasy. As my philosophy professor Hans Meyerhoff pointed out when I was a UCLA student about five million years ago: romanticism most commonly leads to cynicism, since life is so terribly far from ideal (and because, I might add as a Jungian analyst, we ourselves are so far from ideal).
My pal Rob Henderson recently reminded me of this quote from Jung in a 1945 letter to a friend: “Everyone goes through this mill, consciously or unconsciously, voluntarily or forcibly. We are crucified between the opposites and delivered up to the torture until the reconciling third takes place. Do not doubt the rightness of the two sides within you, and let whatever may happen, happen. The apparently unendurable conflict is proof of the rightness of your life. A life without contradiction is either only half a life or else a life in the Beyond, which is destined only for angels. But God loves human beings more than the angels." That one’s a doozy isn’t it? And if you don’t happen to believe in God, no worries. Just substitute Nature, higher power, or the reality of the human psyche.
The contradictions within us high-flying romantics regularly fling us down upon the jagged rocks of life’s cruelties and contradictions. As well as our own. I’ve had several family members contending with serious illness this year, borne ongoing witness to the environmental depredations that are decimating species in droves and may well portend our own demise, and have continued to wrestle with my own wishes to wreak vengeance on anyone and anything that would wrong myself and my beloveds. I fight a constant cold war with my own futile desires for it all to be easier.
The good news is, I’m getting older. Old enough for my internist, the comedic and significantly younger Dr. Drew Schroeder to call me “spry.” (Actually, I told him I’d kill him if he ever called me that again.) Which means that years of practicing analysis, writing fiction, fielding disappointments and suffering awful loss, as well as finding joy so sparkling it's lit my soul on fire, seem to have grown a capacity in me to find nourishment and fertilization in the darkness even while cursing it. That inner-contradiction is, I believe, what keeps me in the transformational pot with my amazing patients, learning from my fictional protagonists, and in a vital partnership with sentient beings and the planet itself, all of us learning, falling apart, suffering, transforming, discovering, tripping on our own feet, getting up and plugging on, and celebrating this odd experiment of the cosmos in popping out creatures capable of at least some consciousness of themselves and their breathtaking universe.
So on this Sunday morning, I offer us all my own post-Railway Man prayer. May we find the kindness in ourselves to forgive our own brutality, our own failures of nerve, our own fragility. May we at least open the window just a crack to the possibility of forgiving those incarnated shards of the infinite in others, too.
(Melanesian hymn God Yu Tekkem Laef Blong Mi, scored by Hans Zimmer )