A couple of weeks ago Netflix released The Discovery.  The Discovery is a movie about a scientist who discovers proof of an afterlife by measuring consciousness leaving the body at the moment of death and going somewhere.  The Discovery leads to a rash of suicides as people start killing themselves to “get there”.  Some are people who want to escape the circumstances of this life Some are people who are anxious to find the next thing. But, what they all have in common is they believe there will be a next life and it will be better.

Without giving away any more of the plot, I will say the movie explores themes of what the afterlife will be like and questions we’ve had like “Is reincarnation a thing?”  The first time I saw the film, I missed a lot near the end because it does move rather slowly through the middle parts.  I watched it a second time, after reading a fan’s theories, and it made much more sense the second time.  You really have to pay attention to the dialog, particularly in the last part of the film.  I’m not sure whether I believe in reincarnation at this point or not.  I certainly don’t believe it is as simple as a lot of people think in that we simply keep getting recycled, over and over and over in a linear fashion.  The way The Discovery explores it gives an explanation for things like reincarnation and deja vu that are more nuanced.

My biggest problem with the film is all of the effects of The Discovery on society are negative. More precisely, I should say the only effect they explore is the suicide rate. People are dying to “get there”.   I’m not going to deny that proof of an afterlife would be a trigger for some already considering suicide. But, what would the other effects be?  I think it would depend on your view of the afterlife and the purpose of life.  What if you found out that suicide wasn’t a “go the head of the class” pass into a blissful existence, but didn’t actually solve anything and any issues you had in this life, you still had to work out either in the afterlife or with a do-over?  What if you knew that after your suicide you were going to have a  life review where you were going to evaluate your own success in your goals for this life, including a detailed first hand experience of how the emotional ripples your suicide left in its wake? Maybe you’d be more inclined to stick around and work through the issues you’re having in this life. After all, if you have to reincarnate to face those issues again, you’d find yourself back as a baby, starting all over with those issues about to come up instead of having gone through the hard work of making it to this point where you can hopefully learn those lesson and put them behind you.  Who wants to get almost of of the way through a course only to have to start over again?  I’m not saying any of these things are true of suicides, but a discovery of the afterlife isn’t a guarantee of a pass of having to do the hard work we came here to do.  Knowing what i know about the afterlife makes it more likely I’ll try to stick this life out, not less.

And what of the positive impacts of knowing we don’t die? What if we knew that “killing” someone didn’t actually kill them?  Would murder be the worst thing we think we can do to someone? How would our day to day lives change if we viewed every person we meet as an immortal, divine being who is wiser than we can imagine and more loved than we’ve dream of, if we knew that body wasn’t the person, just the costume they chose for this particular play?  How would we react to “tragedy”, if we believed this life was a class and each tragedy was the next test of the semester?  How would we deal with grief if we knew that “death” is only a transition, a “see you later”, not a “good-bye”?  Maybe people would commit suicide to get there, but how many would be willing to stick it out and learn the lessons they came to learn knowing that their loved ones will still be there when they do?

With the advent of the SoulPhone, we may be witnessing the birth of The Discovery.  In fact, there may be more than one Discovery. If one of these technologies produces evidence that can be examined and replicated via technology, rather than a medium, maybe that will be what it takes to reach the tipping point and shift the consciousness of this planet.  There will always be hold outs. There are people who still don’t believe we went to the moon or that the Earth is round.  But, what if enough people knew, not just believed?  The world would never be the same.  Science and philosophy are finally taking a serious look at what faith has been telling us and we are seeing leaps and bounds being made in terms of finding out how our universe works, including beyond the physical that we have assumed is the Ground of Being. I, for one, am very excited to see the changes that would make to our world.

Normally, in the circles I travel in, I’m defending ego because a lot of new age teaching is that ego is our enemy and we must do everything we can to vanquish ego.  Ego is a necessary part of being a human being on this planet, but like everything else, can get out of balance.  Today, as I’m on one of my afterlife boards, I see an ugly display of how too much ego causes completely unnecessary conflicts.

Someone came to the board.  As far as I know it was their first time there. They responded to a question about whether or not we do mundane tasks in the afterlife. Do we still have to do dishes? Laundy? Do we ever escape this drudgery?  This person, in their response, made reference to the movie Astral City.  Astral City is a movie based on the book by Chico Xavier, a Brazilian channeler who channeled nearly 500 books in his lifetime. The movie was a huge success in Brazil, where Chico has a cult-like following.  I happened to really have enjoyed the movie, despite some disturbing elements.

There is a member of our group who detests the movie and Chico. One of the disturbing elements of the movie is the teaching that people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol or even who abuse food end up classified as “suicides” and suicides go to a place of torment. The movie opens with a scene where the main character is in torment because he has not taken care of his body and his sudden death is ruled a suicide.  My friend in the group, who I know very well, pounces on it anytime this movie is mentioned. He lambasts the movie, Chico and the Chico-following anytime he gets the opportunity. His contention is the teaching of the movie could lead to despair. Anyone who has abused their body might give up hope and commit suicide since they know they’ve already trashed their life and there is no redemption possible.  The character in the movie doesn’t actually take his own life.  Ironically, his argument is similar to the problem pointed out in the movie The Discovery, but for the opposite reason.  In The Discovery, people are committing suicide to “get there”.  Once they have proof there is an afterlife, they assume it’s better, so they want to hit the fast forward button (boy can I relate to that).

So, back to my story.  The person who recommended Astral City had said it brought them great comfort. They, like me, saw the fact that life continues after “death”.  While there is a purgatory for some, it’s temporary, redemptive, and we can leave when we wish.  Families are reunited. There is opportunity for productive work. There is growth to even higher realms.  For all of these reasons, I liked the movie so much I bought it.

But, here’s where the problem comes in. The person who recommended the movie was so attached to their recommendation that they took the criticism from the other person personally. Their ego was bruised. So, they attacked that person.  I tried to intervene with some humor.  I said “You brought up Astral City in front of Sam (let’s call the person Sam)?  Boy, I’ll bet you never do that again.”  Then, I tried to explain to the person that Sam really is a nice guy (and Sam really is).  But, he has a passionate hatred for these false teachings, New Age teachings that say we become egoless, balls of light just floating around for eternity or fundamentalist Catholic teachings that we have to go through purgatory if we screw up.  To Sam, I tried to get him to get this person a little grace because they had “lost” (I used their word) a child.  Clearly they were hurting and hurt people hurt people.

Neither Sam or the new person was going to back off.  Sam ended up blocking the new person.  The new person fired off a closing salvo on me and left the group. I said “Uh-oh, Betty left the group” (let’s call her Betty).  Sam said “Good.”

As an outside observer this saddened me.  Sam and Betty, in my opinion, were both too caught up in their egos to just soften their words. As I watched the exchange, I wondered how each of them would react to this when they have their life reviews. To be fair to Sam, he did say he was criticizing the movie, not her. But, she couldn’t hear it.  He jumped all over me once for mentioning the movie, but I was able to sort his criticism of the movie out from a personal criticism of me.

Our church is really big on a book called The Four Agreements.  It comes up all the time.  In fact, it came up on Sunday. One of the agreements is “Don’t take it personally.” Frankly, I don’t even know what the other three are. If that one isn’t number one, it should be.

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean s***.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”

Curly: That’s what you gotta figure out.

That is a scene from the movie City Slickers which came out in 1991.  For some reason I still remember that line well enough that when the title for this blog came to me, that scene popped into my head.

The other day I was listening to a Podcast where a master yoga instructor was asked if there were just one thing she could teach her students what would it be?  I thought about that. What is the one thing that is the most important in life? As I’m dealing with a lot of negative emotions surrounding death in the various groups I’m in, I ponder “What is the one thing that could help with all of that anger, fear, and depression?” And I came up with an answer.  I know the One Thing.

The One Thing is to know that your body is not you.  At the root of the fear of death is the knowledge that our bodies do not live forever. As much as we deny it, as much as we try to keep these bodies young, we cannot escape that nagging knowledge in the backs of our minds that it’s a futile effort.  One day this body will be no more. And, since we identify so closely with the body, the natural conclusion is that we will be no more either.

If we can break that attachment to the body, we can conquer the fear of death.  Yesterday I was discussing the fear of death with a young woman. I asked her specifically what does she fear? She thinks at the end of life we just cease to exist.  She feared being a disembodied consciousness in a black void.  Just blackness for eternity.  I told her that, if she ceases to exist, there will be no blackness to perceive and it certainly won’t be for an eternity. So, nothing to fear there.  She fears her friends going on and having fun without her. Again, if she doesn’t exist, she’s not going to be around to be jealous of them having fun without her. She fears what they are going to do with her body after she’s gone and people looking at “her”.  I told her that after she drops her body (she will go on), she won’t care any more about what happens to her body than she cares about what happens to the hair left on the salon floor after she gets a haircut. Her fears were totally irrational, yet totally normal.

My mother-in-law has already picked out and bought her casket.  Occasionally, I will tease her and tell her that we’re going to have her cremated.  “Oh no.  I don’t want to be burned up!” she’ll say. (I guess she thinks it’s going to be warm and dry and well lit inside that casket.  I let her keep that fantasy.)  When we talk about our wishes after our deaths, we’ll talk about being cremated or being buried. I’m very careful with this language. No one is cremated or buried. I’ll ask “What did they do with the body?”  The body, that which was their vehicle, is discarded. To me, it makes not a whit of difference what you do with whatever assembly of molecules happens to be collected at the time when I step out of my vehicle.  The molecules that were in this thing we call my body when I was born are long gone.  If I live long enough, the molecules that are collected today, April 25, 2017, will be long gone when I step out.  They come and they go. They pass through. They are not me.

I practice daily not identifying with the body. When I see it aging, I remind myself it’s not me. I’ve become so detached from it, I surprise myself when I get protective of it.  I do take care of it.  As vehicles pass by me too closely on the road as I walk, I get angry because they’re not respecting the space I want for my body. I still need it to operate in this world.  But, I know my life is not dependent on my body.

If I can help people with One Thing, that’s it. You are not your body.  Your body is a tool, a temple, a vehicle.  Take care of it. Be grateful for it. But, don’t place ultimate importance on it. And, don’t worry about what will happen when you burst forth from it. It’s gonna be good!

I read The Shack about a decade ago.  I was coming out of fundamentalist Christianity and rapidly deconstructing my faith, so fast that I was about to chuck Christianity entirely.  The Shack presented a different view of God, a view that I had never heard any Christian express. God, as a black woman, now that’s a God I can relate to.  God as a father and being all loving and cuddly didn’t really work for me, as it didn’t for Mack.  People who were too chummy with God kind of weirded me out.  I was the father of two girls not much older than Missy. So, I could relate to Mack’s pain when his daughter was murdered.

The Shack takes on a lot of big questions. And it offers some damn good answers, from my perspective.  God loves us more than we can imagine. God is in this with us, even when we are in pain- maybe especially when we are in pain. Radical forgiveness is essential to living a life where we are not constantly hurting ourselves- letting go is essential.  And there is a plan, even if we cannot always or even often see it.  I read the book three times. I highlighted just about every page. I was in discussion groups where we discussed it. After reading it, I had a new understanding of the Trinity (still not a huge fan of it. I find it an unnecessary analogy that brings more confusion than it solves). But, I had a deeper appreciation of God as a loving, caring father- not someone who was out to get me and send me to an eternal fiery hell.

As I’ve read some others’ comments about the movie/book, one criticism that I am seeing is it doesn’t sufficiently answer the problem of theodicy. Theodicy is the branch of theology concerned with defending the attributes of God against objections resulting from physical and moral evil.  Put simply, why would an infinitely loving and powerful God allow “evil” to exist?  Why do we have to suffer?

This question is at least as old as the concept of God.  The book of Job takes it on.  If you’ve ever read the book of Job, you may have noticed God doesn’t give a direct answer.  She doesn’t in The Shack either.

For me, the movie doesn’t have to answer the problem of theodicy.  It’s not a problem I wrestle with anymore. There is “evil”. There is suffering.  There is pain. That’s a given.  It’s part of this world. Whether you are one who believes it’s because God screwed up on version 1.0 and allowed Adam to thwart His plans and now we’re in world 2.0; or you believe it was part of the design, we find ourselves in a world of pain. For me, the question is “What am I going to do with it?”.  For most of my life I did not trust God.  How could I? This was a God who put me in a world where I was in jeopardy of eternal torment.  This was a God who allowed children to die. I was never naive enough to believe that nothing bad would ever happen to me (I was a weird kid).  I always feared the worst. So, I did not, could not trust God.  When I read The Shack the first time I still did not trust God, even after finishing the book.

Ironically, after Shayna’s passing, I finally got what it meant to have faith that life is happening for me, not to me.  It’s not that bad things will not happen to me. It’s quite the opposite. It’s inevitable they will. It’s what the final outcome will be.  There’s a powerful scene in the movie where Mack speaks with the personification of the Holy Spirit. She asks him about his definition of good and evil.  To paraphrase, whatever he likes or brings pleasure to him or his loved ones is good. Whatever he doesn’t like or brings discomfort or pain to him or his loved ones is evil. When I heard Mack put this into words, I realized this is nearly the universal definition we all have of what is good and what is evil.  Then she asks him “Have you ever been wrong?  Have you ever changed your mind?”  He answers, of course, yes.  I think we all can think back to things in our life that we deemed “evil” at the time.  And years later, we see the path that opened up because of those things and we wouldn’t change them if we could.

I think the answer to the problem of theodicy is trust.  It’s trust in the process. It’s trust that we don’t have all of the answers yet and that when we do it’ll all make sense.  In that sense, I think The Shack answered the question as well as it can be answered on this side of The Veil.

Last night we watched the television program “This Is Us”.  If you haven’t seen the show, it’s must see TV.  If you haven’t seen the episode from February 22, 2017, spoiler alert. Stop reading now.

In last night’s episode, Randall takes William on a road trip back to his home town of Memphis.  William is Randall’s father who abandoned Randall as an infant.  Randall makes contact with William after being adopted and raised by another family.  Randall is a highly successful professional.  William is a recovering drug addict.  William has terminal cancer and the two of them are getting to know each other as William is dying and has moved into Randall’s home.

The episode does a great job of encapsulating William’s life from the time he is born during World War II. In just an hour, we get a feel for his ups and downs. His father dies in the war. So, he never even met him. William’s single mother raises him and we see the full arc of his life from infant being loved on by his mother, to old man, getting to know his now grown son.

Normally during a television program or movie I will find one primary character to identify with.  In This is Us, I have been torn between Randall, the son with two daughters and a wife, and William, the old man.  Randall is several years younger than I am and William is a few years older than I am.  When William is on his death bed and says he’s a little afraid of dying, I could relate.  As much as I’m looking forward to death, dying is still a little scary.  I’m not ready to go yet.

Last night as I slept, I dreamt of my sister, Bridget. For some reason, I was trying to figure out how old she was. Was she born in 1974 or 1972?   It was ‘72.  Once I figured that out, I was trying to figure out how old that made her.  I knew (in my dream) that it was 2016, but i could not do the math. The last age I remembered was her being 16 (that’s how old she was when we got married).  But, that didn’t seem right.  Finally, the math clicked. She is 42.  Wow. I thought.  How old does that make me. Then, I did that math.  Suddenly, I felt ancient.  I have never in my life thought I would live this long. I’m 55.  I began to feel what I think it feels like to die.  It was kind of scary. I didn’t like the feeling, so I woke up.

As time for getting up rolled around this morning, I thought of Shayna.  It’s been 20 months since I last saw her.  Unbelievable. Today, we leave for the Back to Your Center weekend retreat where we hope to find a reset on life.  We’re leaving out of the Cincinnati airport which brought back memories of picking her and Tywana up from there after the volleyball tournament in Florida.  That was on a Saturday, she passed the following Wednesday.  So, picking her up is still etched in my memory.

The arc of a life.  So many ups and downs.  Good times.  Bad times. We endure. We enjoy.  And, eventually, we go Home. There was a quick shot in the show last night when William had passed and he walks into his mother’s arms.  She had grown old before she passed, but there she was, young and vibrant looking the way he remembered her, waiting to be with her boy again. The remembrance of that scene brought me to tears this morning.

I’m re-reading the book The Shack in anticipation of the movie coming out next month on what has to be the ten year anniversary of the book.  I’ve read the book two or three times, but not in almost a decade.  The last time I would have read it, the girls were probably somewhere around 12 and 9 years old.  In the book, the main character, Mack, has a daughter who is kidnapped and murdered and must confront his relationship with God in light of this tragic event. The book takes on all of the big questions, including the biggest- theodicy- how could an all powerful and all loving God allow the absolute worst- the death of a child?

Those years ago when I read the book, I could related to Mack, as a man with several young children.  Now, I related all the more, as a grieving father.  After Missy’s death, Mack falls into The Great Sadness.  I had no idea at the time how well the author described this feeling that settles in on a grieving parent, a feeling we wear like a lead lined overcoat weighing us down.

The book is pretty traditionally Christian and features, the Trinity, prominently. In standard Christian fare, God tells Mack this world is not as designed. Something happened when Adam disobeyed that screwed up the whole world. The pain and the separation were not planned, and therefore I assume, not necessary. However, God is working to redeem the world. The idea of divine providence (not the words) are also a prominent theme of the book. God is working for everyone’s highest good, even through all of the brokenness.

Mack struggles with this concept because Mack is enduring the ultimate pain.  God tells Mack he would not suffer so if he could just trust.  But, how do you trust someone who would allow what is most precious to you to be ripped from you?  When I read the book the firsts time, both of my girls were still here, yet I didn’t get this divine providence concept and didn’t buy into it.  I also didn’t trust God.  I was attending a church at the time where a lot of people believed if you did the right things, including tithing and praying enough, God would make your life smooth sailing. Tithe and he’ll send more money back to you than you put in.  Pray and he’d even find a parking space for you.  I never believed any of that.  I knew that, at any time, tragedy could strike and I did not trust the God who would allow that to happen.

Then, tragedy did strike. The worst.  Shayna was taken, suddenly, in the middle of the night, without warning.  And I had a decision to make.  If I didn’t trust this capricious God before, how could i trust Him after?  What I have found since that time is my view of the world has taken a shift. The pain isn’t a mistake. It’s an ordinary pain, even an necessary pain if we are going to live in a world with choices, real choices between doing good and doing evil and all of the consequences that brings along with it.  There have to be opportunities to serve  and to serve, someone has to be lacking something.  God wasn’t surprised by the “turn” humanity took, it was part of the design.

And the pain, is it worth it?  Mack, at the point I’m at in the book now, cannot imagine what could make his pain worth it.  He’s still at the point where he doesn’t trust God.  Ironically, I trust divine providence/God now more than I ever have.  Trusting God doesn’t mean that I trust that nothing bad will ever happen, anyone who has spent a few years on this planet knows that’s bullshit. Trusting God means I trust that whatever happens, it’s ultimately going to work out and it’s ultimately going to be worth it. Not today, not tomorrow, and in my case, maybe not for 30 or  40 years (God forbid it’s that long), but it will be, one day.

I’ll watch anything with an afterlife theme, at least once.  I’ve been watching a show called The Good Place. It’s not deeply theological, but it’s amusing.  The premise of the show is a woman who is a bad person has, through a clerical error, ended up in The Good Place. She’s selfish and rude and really has no business being there, which she quickly realizes. The problem though is there are only  two options. There is The Good Place, a place of eternal bliss with frozen yogurt shops and all kinds of fun activities. And, there is the bad place, a place of eternal torment. She has no choice but to keep up the charade or face eternal torment.

The way you get into the good place is an accumulation of points during your life on Earth. Good deeds have a positive point value. Bad deeds have a negative point value. At the end of your life, if your point total is high enough you’re allowed into The Good Place. Fall below the line and you’re in the bad place, presumably forever.

Sadly, this is way too close to the theology I grew up with.  There was a binary choice of heaven or hell.  You were either going to unbelievable eternal bliss or to lonely eternal torment.  It never made sense to me that this was the way it is. Why not a medium place for people who were pretty good, but not necessarily deserving of bliss?  If you missed the mark by one point, you were going to the bad place?  They told us all we had to do to get to The Good Place was believe in Jesus and we’d be saved. But, on the other hand, they handed us this huge set of rules- no swearing, no drinking, no smoking, no dancing, no… well you get the picture. And, if you were doing any of those things when Jesus came or you died (whichever came first), the whole thing could be blown by an unconfessed sin.  Get caught in the wrong place, like a bar or the movie theater, when Jesus came back and He wasn’t coming in to get you.

Even if you did make it to the end of your life without Jesus coming back catching you in the wrong place at the wrong time, you were then going to face a single elimination evaluation that would determine where you would spend eternity. No do-overs, no excuses.  Just you and The Judge and then off you go.

What I now believe is there isn’t a binary choice of where we go- bliss or torment. There are places that we migrate to based on what we’re ready for after we have left this life. Earth, some say is the lowest place. Some say there are lower places. There are definitely higher places and there are more than one place. And it’s not a one and done proposition. We can and do move from place to place even after this life is over.

The Good Place is on episode 11. Poor Eleanor (the main character) has been trying to figure out how to stay in The Good Place and has several times argued there should be a place for people like her, people who hadn’t earned enough points to go to The Good Place, but weren’t exactly serial killers and rapists. At the end of episode 11, they have introduced the concept of a Medium Place.  Makes sense to me.

I’m watching a Netflix series now called “Travelers”. Time travel has always fascinated me.  The paradoxes- what happens if you change something in the past that prevents your birth? How could you do such a thing if you weren’t there to travel to the past in the first place?  Is time linear? Could we actually travel through time like we do through space?  In spite of these questions my engineer brain can’t figure out, I love time travel stories.

In Travelers, people from the future are on a mission to come to the past to prevent a catastrophe that totally screws up the future. The way they travel is they project their consciousness into people who are dying just before their moment of death and prevent the death. Their consciousness takes over the consciousness of the host, who would have died anyway.  But, the thing about Travelers that is resonating with me is that is exactly what I feel like now, I’m a Traveler. This is not my home. This is a place where I am on a mission. Part of that mission seems to be to figure out I’m on a mission. My meditation practice is helping me connect with my higher consciousness.  It’s half an hour a day, in addition to the hour that I walk, when I can unplug from this simulation that I find myself in and connect with my real Self. Increasingly, I’m able to bring that consciousness off of the meditation cushion and into my daily existence in this place. It’s all temporary. I’m just passing through.  I might as well enjoy the ride.

I keep hearing, from Swedenborg, and a number of other sources, that we all have at least one guardian angel. I was listening to a woman yesterday who says we have at least one primary angel who is with us from before birth to the moment we die, never taking her eyes off of us even for a second.  But, if that’s true, why don’t we feel this guardian angel? We’re told we can have a relationship with our guardian angel, that that angel will protect us from physical harm and will give us insights as to what we should do. This woman claims that she can see everyone else’s guardian angels. I heard an interview with a man who met his guardian angel. The angel appeared to him first as a homeless man, then later in other forms.  So, what’s the deal with the rest of us?

As I was watching the Netflix series OA, one of the things that struck me was the struggle.  When OA first dies, she meets a spirit woman (her guardian angel?) who offers her the opportunity to stay or to come back. OA wants to return, so the angel says “I don’t want you to have to see what’s coming, so I’m going to take your sight.”. Thanks, guardian angel.  My life is going to be so horrible, you don’t want me to have to see it?  Then, after OA is captured, the captives are trying to learn some techniques that will allow them to escape. They are given one move at a time only after an excruciating set of experiences lasting a period of years. Nothing comes easy. Why didn’t the angels in spirit just give them the moves?  Why all the suffering?  Why did it take years from the time OA got the first move until they finally figured out what they were looking for and got the fifth and final move?  I realize The OA is just fiction, but this aspect of it reflects what we experience in the real world. In this world, nothing seems to come easy, especially spiritual progress. Even with the presence of guardian angels, we struggle to make progress. We make mistakes.  Our spirit guides, even if we ask them for assistance, don’t explicitly tell us what to do and not to do. We still marry that wrong person. We take that job that is a dead end. We start that business that fails.  We have that car accident.  Are the angels asleep at the wheel?

I’m working hard to make spiritual progress.  Meditation, reading, exercise, lectures.  And it’s frustrating, long hard work, just like OA and her band stuck in captivity in that basement.  I was listening to this angel seeing woman yesterday talk about the power of prayer.  She said we should pray even if it’s just as simple as “Help me.” Hell, I pray that prayer every single day, multiple times a day. I’m still waiting for a response.

Are guardian angels real?  Yes. I believe they are. What are their jobs exactly?  I don’t know.  It’s not to give us all of the answers.  It’s not to keep us from ever stubbing our toes.  It’s still a tough world to navigate and there are going to be bumps and bruises along the way.

A couple of months ago a friend sent a link to me. It was the trailer for Collateral Beauty. The trailer is beautifully done.  In the trailer we learn that Will Smith has lost a daughter at a young age, has given up on life and has raged at the cosmos for answers. We are led to believe that he gets answers from the three things he says connect all human beings. As he says “We long for love. We wish we had more time.  And, we fear death.” What could be more profound?  We know about the damage that death causes.  The movie title is a play on “collateral damage”, a term we are all too familiar with. The movie promises we will find out about the “collateral beauty”, presumably of his daughter’s death.  As a grieving parent, I could not wait to see the movie. I try to go to movies with low expectations. The higher my expectations, the more chance I will be disappointed. I also try to go knowing as little as possible about the movie.  I won’t read reviews. After watching the one trailer, I even avoided all other trailers.  The movie boasts an all-star cast.  Not only Will Smith, who has turned into an excellent actor, we also have Helen Mirren, Kate Winslett, Edward Norton and Keira Knightley.  When I was looking up movie times I stumbled across the reviews from Rotten Tomatoes (damn you Google) and saw the headlines of some blogs about the movie. It seemed there was a lot of disappointment around the movie and some of the plot twists.  I’ll say up front, if you’re a grieving parent planning to see this movie looking for some answers, looking for how to see the transcendence in the world, looking for hope, just rewatch What Dreams May Come and skip this one.

Minor spoiler- one of the things the trailer leaves out is how Time, Love and Death come to call on Howard. That should have been in there.  We are led to believe that they come in response to his letters.  In actuality, we find out quickly in the movie that his business partners are concerned that the business is floundering because Howard has checked out from the business.  He is the majority owner and he had all of the client relationships in the advertising agency they run.  One by one, they are losing all of their clients because Howard does absolutely no work. He comes to work, spends days setting up elaborate domino towers only to knock them down and return home to his small apartment.  He doesn’t speak to anyone. They can’t even talk to him about selling the business, because he won’t speak.  So, they decide to hire a group of actors they find rehearsing a play in an abandoned theater. These three play the roles of Time, Love,  and Death in order to make Howard act out so a private eye can catch him on film acting crazy and they can have him declared mentally incompetent. Yes.  The plot of the movie is his founding partner and two people he has mentored plot to steal his business by having him declared mentally incompetent.  At this point, we are questioning whether Time, Love and Death are actually who they say they are or if they are simply actors in need of funding for their play.

The movie does an excellent job of showing the collateral damage caused by the death of Olivia, Howard’s daughter.  Howard is losing his business.  Howard has no social life.  Howard has no desire to eat.  He sleeps 6-7 hours, a week.  Howard has gotten divorced. The movie makes sure we know that 79% of couples who lose a child end up getting divorced.  Howard is a wreck. His life is in shambles.  (Note to Will Smith- you should have asked Christian Bale how to play a man in this state- see The Machinist.  Had Howard spent the last two years riding that bike the way he did in the movie, not sleeping and not eating, he would have looked more like this).

SPOILERS

Read no further if you intend to see the film. Here’s where the real spoilers begin.

OK.  So, now we know that Howard’s life sucks. Enter Time, Love, and Death. Again, not with the motivation to make Howard realize the beauty in his life, with the motivation of getting him to sell his business so his friends can go on with their lives.  Each, in turn, makes their pitch to Howard for why he should snap out of it.  They give some decent speeches, but nothing that really moves Howard out of the funk he is in. Love tells Howard she is the fabric of the universe (Howard already know this. He says it right in the opening of the movie). Time tells Howard he is a gift.  Yeah. Right. Time is a gift when you are living a life you enjoy.  Time is a prison when you are living a life separated by what you hold most dear.  Death- well I can’t even remember Death’s pitch other than she’s annoyed that Howard called her basically middle management with no authority to make decisions.  Howard offered Death a trade. He would die if his daughter could live.  Howard tells Time he doesn’t want his gift since Time took that gift from his daughter.  Howard tells Love that she betrayed him.  Howard destroys all of the platitudes religion and science give us to make us feel better about Death and Time stealing all we Love.  And they have no satisfactory answers. IMO, Howard won every argument he had with those three.

What we realize though is the actors are each having an impact on the co-conspirators.  Time is there for Kate Winslett’s character. She has poured her entire life into the firm and has delayed having a family of her own. Her biological clock is going off. Time gives her the Einstein “Time is a persistent illusion” speech.  Death is there for the partner dying of cancer who has told no one. Death convinces him to tell his family he is dying. Love is there for Edward Norton who is estranged from his 10-year-old daughter. She refuses to have anything to do with him because he cheated on her mother and caused the end of the marriage.  Each of the three is touched by the actors (who seem to have little influence on Howard).  The guy who is dying tells his family.  Kate Winslett gives up on having a baby (maybe she’s going to adopt). Edward Norton insists on a relationship with his daughter and makes some progress.

Howard is confronted in the Board Room with the results of their con.  They have filmed him arguing with Time, Love and Death and they have edited the characters out of the films. (I’m no movie expert. But, there is reason why they use green screen when they want to remove characters from a scene or they have the actor wear green suits. I think the editing they did would have been nearly impossible without a studio, but I digress).

So, in the videos, it looks like Howard is arguing with people who aren’t there. Here is where I am thinking they are going to come clean. Or, Howard is going to have his eyes opened that he owes these people his presence and he’s going to promise to come back to the company. I’m thinking this is the big reveal. Howard is going to go back to being the old Howard for his friends and his firm.  He’s going to realize they need him.  But, no. Howard signs the papers, sells the company and they take the money they are going to get from the sale. They’ve all just gotten rich convincing him he’s crazy.

A subplot that develops is Howard starts going to a grief counseling group. There is an attractive woman leading the group. One night, after he finally goes in (after creeping outside of the window for several nights) they strike up a conversation.  That’s where we learn he’s divorced and she’s divorced. They are part of the 79%.  She shows him a card her ex-husband gave her that says something like “I wish we could be strangers again”. When people lose a child, sometimes the other person is a reminder of that child every single day and it’s too much to bear. People deal with grief differently. Apparently, Howard wouldn’t even say Olivia’s name. When asked in the group to say her name and how she died, he refuses. Others lean into their grief. If you get one person who wants to lean into it and another who does not, that is a combination that probably won’t work.

At the end of the movie, we find out this woman is actually Howard’s ex.  WTF?!  Apparently, they were both play acting the whole time.  When he finally made his way to her group (two years after Olivia had passed). She pretended not to know him and he pretended not to know her so they could start all over again. This is the plot twist that I think upset some people.  I still haven’t read any reviews, but I saw a headline “Here’s every single thing that’s wrong with Collateral Beauty”).

In the end, Howard and Olivia’s mother start all over. That’s great. The dying guy tells his family he’s dying.  Apparently, he still dies.  Kate Winslett decides to adopt. She admits Time has defeated her. And Time, who has said “Time is a persistent illusion” admits maybe that was just bullshit.  Edward Norton does rekindle the relationship with his daughter.  We learn that Helen Mirren was the woman sitting with Howard’s wife the day they turned off the machines and let Olivia go.  I’m not sure where Howard was at that moment- maybe I missed it. It’s ambiguous whether Time, Love and Death were just actors or were Light Beings.  We know that Keira Knightley (Love) intentionally led Edward Norton to the theater in the beginning and we know that Helen Mirren (Death) was there with Howard’s wife when Olivia passed telling her to look for the Collateral Beauty. The problem is, once the movie was over, I failed to find the Collateral Beauty myself.

 

p.s.- How would I have made it better?

Someone asked how would I have made the movie better?  Great question.

First, in a movie where Time, Love, and Death can be personified, it’s not too much to ask to go into the transcendence of the human spirit. There was no mention of the afterlife.  At one point, Time says “If Love is the creator of all things and Death is the destroyer of all things, I am what you experience in between. I am a gift.” or something like that.  So, are we to assume that Death is the end? Death is only destruction? OTOH, Death makes the comment that, if you look at it correctly, nothing ever really dies. But, this is not expounded upon.

Also, I would have had the conspirators come clean. I thought that perhaps Howard was playing a role along with Time, Love and Death to teach them a lesson. I would have had them confess that they had set Howard up. Maybe, then Howard would have revealed the three were working with him to teach the conspirators a lesson.  Howard could have announced that he had learned that he was needed by others in this world and it wasn’t his time to give up on life yet.  He could have come back to the firm for the sake of his partners.  He could have played a role in helping the one partner to find a peaceful death and helping out his family.

They could have developed each of the three conspirators’ characters more.  Time needed to do more with Kate Winslett. Death needed to do more with the guy who was dying. Those story lines just kind of fizzled.

And, at the end, what was the deal with Will Smith not knowing his wife? Did he have selective amnesia? Did they agree to play these roles for each other in an effort to start over?

As a grieving father, I was excited to see that Time, Love, and Death had been personified.  I was hoping for a transcendental message where Death is there to help us appreciate the Time we have, but Love transcends even Death.  That would have made the movie complete for me.