Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
The following contains spoilers for The Hunger Games series of books and films, including the most recent film adaptation, Mockingjay Part 2.
Too late, in the theater, I remember what The Hunger Games franchise is fundamentally about: dead kids. I had forgotten, but Mockingjay Part 2 brings that point home, time and time again. In the years since reading the books and in the three year span of the movies, I had become confused. I assumed it was about Katniss and the myth of redemptive violence, I no longer have the luxury of being Effie, I am not as peaceful and forgiving as Peeta, my heart does not long for revenge like Gale. I thought it was a commentary on capitalism and consumerism run amok, I thought it was a tale of institutional distrust and a dystopian teenage love triangle fantasy. But as the fourth and final Hunger Games film showed me, this is not really what it was all about. It was in the beginning, and remains to the end, a commentary on what it means to watch God’s precious children die, and what our response might be.
Death is your trigger, the counselor told me, and I nodded my head. Specifically, the death of my baby boy. When I was pregnant, my body was on a constant see-saw of illness–ultimately not recognizing the baby as a symbol of life, but as a threat instead. This led to my kidneys, my arteries, my blood vessels, all sorts of murky and unseen components, failing me. This led to hospitalizations and a c-section and medicines that kept me alive but made me feel like death. A few months after all of that drama, my tiny little son became ill. There were a few sleepless days and nights in a hospital, me rocking his hot little body, thinking more thoughts about death. I spent a few days eating breakfast quietly in the Ronald McDonald house, other bleary parents shuffling to the coffee pot, staring off into space. I felt terrified and guilty at the same time–it was very likely my son would get better and be out in a few days time, but not everyone else would be so lucky. For those few days I was a member in a particular tribe of suffering, and then I passed on to the other side, the side where our babies did not die. But I knew now that there were so many who did not get to go there.
In the beginning, Katniss volunteers as tribute to save the life of her small, innocent sister. It is the death of tiny, sparkling Rue which sets off the first rebellions against the capitol. In the final movie, the moment the war is over is the moment that children are laid waste in a gratuitous, unbearable flash.
I sit in the theater and I remember my triggers, I can feel my heart seizing up within me. There is a moment in the film, near the end, where a young girl looks at Katniss as she struggles to find her way into the presidential mansion to kill President Snow. This young girl becomes the mirror through which we in the audience begin to feel that these could, perhaps, be real people. As she experiences a tragedy, this young girl in a bright yellow coat, we experience just the tiniest bit of it as well.
That little girl stood out to me because I had become numb by the professional tributes, the sci-fi “mutts,” the people in soldier’s clothing. The landscape of this final film was both familiar and dystopian at the same time–bombed out buildings, people wearing extravagant coats and make-up. I tried to connect myself to the film where I could, and the strained face of Katniss was my guide. I, along with many in the audience, set my jaw and marched through to the end of this series, determined to come out as a victor on the other side. And I see how we are a bit numb to it in our real life, after all–the endless wars, the dead children washing up on the shores, the thousands of refugees not allowed into our pristine gates–so it makes sense that we are numb to a movie like this, in the end.
I was raised on apocalyptic literature, I was raised to search the heavens for the signs of the end of days. Is this why dystopian films–close enough to scare us, but far enough away to be comfortable–are so popular? I used to be able to sit still and listen to prophecies about the end times, of the persecutions and the horrors to come right before the end of days, before Christ came back for the second time. But now I know too many people where the end already came. I have lived and worked with refugees for the past decade, and everything prophesied already happened to them. Wars and famines and death and pestilence, exile from a place they can never again go back to. Bombed-out cities, children dead on the ground. What was just a future-based theology for me, what is a form of entertainment for us, is the reality of so many around the world. Versions of the Hunger Games exist the world over, but they never happened to me.
Instead of Katniss, the person I think Suzanne Collins meant for us to truly identify with is Effie Trinket–the preposterous, good-hearted, naive accomplice and benefactor of the Capitol. We love her because she is silly and distracted but ultimately not responsible for the evils of her country. At the end of this film she kisses Katniss and wipes away a tear or two from her flickering blue eyelashes. Life will go on for her, we understand, in a somewhat normal way. Removed from the real violence and cost, Effie never fully understands her participation nor the consequences of the politics of oppression that dictated Panem. She herself had been a consumer of this story of Katniss, the Mockingjay, since the beginning. She sheds a tear and then moves on, a result of living and growing up within the capitol, a result of being on the dominant side of history. If Effie has been permanently affected by the violence and horror of both the Hunger Games and the subsequent casualties of war, we don’t get to see it. And in a way, we hope she doesn’t.
We want life to go on as normal. We want to escape the realities of the world we live in. So we blink back our own few tears, get out of our seats, and leave the theater. We try, just like Effie, to forget all that we have seen and know, because that is the easier way to live.
Many of the refugees I know–from SE Asia, from E Africa, from Latin America–tell me hard stories, and I cannot ever fully fathom the experiences they have had. They weigh on me, these stories, especially the ones of the dead children. And there are so many of them–nearly every refugee I have had the privilege of knowing has at least one or two tragedies to share. Death due to war and preventable illness and lack of maternal health care or clean water or adequate food. Beyond the stories of my friends there are the stories I see on the news, in my Twitter feed, on Facebook. Refugees, fleeing from the horrors that follow close behind. Children, so many children, wandering the earth and being killed for no reason, while we watch in horror.
Death is my trigger, death is my ever-present question and companion, death is the doubt I hold up to the God I grew up believing was my good Father. At times, like when I was in the hospital a few months ago holding my own sick little baby boy, thinking about so many of my friends who have lost their own, death seems like all there is in this world.
In the theater, watching Mockingjay Part 2, I can feel the panic rising in my throat. I no longer have the luxury of being Effie, I am not as peaceful and forgiving as Peeta, my heart does not long for revenge like Gale. I am horrified at what I am watching, I am horrified at the parallels to our own, very real world. I think Collins is pushing the question towards us: what is the way forward, once we have experienced loss, once we become aware that our reality is connected to the suffering of others, once our ability to not engage has been ripped from us by circumstance? I was surprised to discover how final Hunger Games film answers that question in the end.
The last scene of the film rebuilds something in me, reminding me of a truth I learned long ago. A soft, golden-hued Katniss, dressed like a housewife from the 1950s, is cradling a baby in her arms. Her toddler plays with Peeta in a field, the Capitol and the Arena and the political turmoil is worlds away. And we are meant to realize this, in a flash: that the best way to counteract the horrors of our world–the fighting, the death, the suffering–is to open ourselves up to life again. To nurture children, even in a scary world. To love people, even though we might lose them. To have babies, even though they will one day die. We beat back the darkness by choosing light. We follow the lead of our God, who continuously creates even as we destroy, who always chooses life and who will one day resurrect us all, who gave us the ultimate symbol of victory when another young woman gave birth to a baby boy who promises to make all things new.
So much death, but in the end it is life that we see. So many dead children, but also the choice to bring forth our own little resurrections in the here and now. Collins, and the entire Hunger Games series, leaves us, the audience, with the image of a baby. And I can’t help but think: a little child shall lead us, into the depths of suffering and a collective call to forgiveness and redemption. A response I hope I am strong enough to choose, time and time again.
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