Nothing of Nothing

There was a knock at my door and when I answered, one of my neighbors frantically explained that a local child was missing. My wife and I joined dozens of other families from around the community and began searching. We could hear people near and far calling out the little girl’s name, so we repeated the call. As time went on you could tell people were becoming more and more desperate, until the news came that she had been found. A tremendous sense of relief instantly washed over me and we walked back to our homes. It was a bit shocking how quickly everything returned to normal after such a traumatic event.

Days later I told my wife how surreal the whole incident had seemed looking back on it. We had lived in the small neighborhood for a couple of years but had only met a few of our neighbors, and in an instant every single person came out into the streets and joined in the mission of finding this lost child, no questions asked. At that time I was working as a youth minister in a local church and I could not stop thinking about how many kids in our city were just as lost, emotionally and spiritually, as that little girl had been, but we lacked the communal insight and will to discover and make the changes necessary to rescue them.  

Over the years I’ve reflected on this event countless times, but lately I’ve been thinking about the way it relates to the current state of our society, and in an unusual way to one of my favorite movies, Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film, Inception. At the time of the little girl’s disappearance I had focused on the individual children in my community that I knew were lost emotionally and spiritually, but now I can’t help but think that our entire culture is slipping away, suffering from a collective form of depression and post traumatic stress disorder that has followed decades of unresolved corruption, scandal, and tragedy. Sometimes I think we focus on the division in our society, because it’s abstract enough for us to accept without feeling too much guilt about the parts we’ve all played in creating it.  

How then do we acknowledge our own mistakes and accept what most of us already know deep down is the only way forward? That’s where Inception comes in. On the first viewing, it can seem like the scenes of the film are going back and forth between the real world and a series of elaborately constructed dream states, but I believe the truth is that the entire film is occurring within Cobb’s limbo, which each of his friends has volunteered to enter into, in order to help pull Cobb out of the pain he suffers from not being able to save his wife. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the film, there’s a great review pointing out some key moments and hidden gems over at Erick Voss’s YouTube channel, New Rockstars, that might help. 

One of the reasons I love this interpretation of the story is because it turns what seems to be the film’s plot, a complex scheme to achieve “inception,” or the planting of an idea in someone’s mind as if it were their own, into a grueling attempt to remind someone, Cobb in this circumstance, of something he already knows to be true; that the truth of life with pain is always more beautiful than the cold and dark emptiness of a lie which leads to oblivion. The movie is a two hour long act of revealing the nothingness of nothing, and as the film demonstrates, this is no easy task in cinema or in real life. Just look at the public outrage over Bruce Springsteen’s failed attempt at restoring hope to our nation through a Super Bowl commercial. It ain’t that easy boss, no two minute ad or inaugural address is going to heal the festering wounds poisoning the fabric of our shared community.

The even deeper reason I love this interpretation, however, is that it is one of my favorite modern retellings of the gospel in popular culture. I believe that at the heart of the cross is a God who enters into human suffering, not because he had not felt it before, but because he had already taken it all on himself in eternity. The paradox of human freedom is that we always seem to enter into this downward spiral of corruption and violence, and the only way out is for someone to be willing to take the pain of that abuse and not re-inflict it on those around them. Cobb’s friends know they will suffer along the way and they know that there is a chance they will be stuck in limbo with him for the rest of their lives, but they take the risk anyway, and the man who orchestrates the plan is the man hurt most by Cobb’s mistakes, Mal’s own father played by Michael Cain.

In order for Cobb to escape limbo he has to let go of the painful memories that have strangely brought him comfort. This desire to hold on to painful memories is a temptation we all face, over time we can even start to feel good about how bad we feel, and in a powerfully self destructive way we can become attached to those feelings of shame. Letting go of those memories and that shame also requires us to come face to face with the people we’ve hurt, and for Cobb that means returning to the real world with his children who have lost their mother and with his father-in-law who has lost his daughter, and while these people bring him joy, their presence also serves as a constant reminder of the mistakes he’s made along the way.

Facing this duality is an essential aspect of human nature. The things that bring us the most joy can cause us the most sorrow, and there are even times when those two distinct realities overlap. Finding a balance between the two as a pathway through the wilderness is not easy and there are countless books, movies, and tv shows that tell the stories of men and women struggling to find their way, along with friends and family members trying to guide them. Ad Astra, Dark, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Notes From the Underground, and The Road are just a few that come to my mind. I would love to hear your recommendations, and thoughts you might have about how we can accomplish this process collectively.

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