When Changing Nothing Changes Everything by Laurie Polich Short, Free for CAPC Members
In her book When Changing Nothing Changes Everything, Laurie Polich Short gives us insight into living life fully, whatever our circumstances.
On my wall is a Demotivator calendar—instead of motivational posters, each month displays a poster with an inspiring image and deliberately depressing text. This month, the image is the Grand Canyon at sunset, the Colorado River a gorgeous blue thread winding through its depths. Underneath the image is the word Legacy and then a reminder: “It took millions of years to create something this extraordinary. You have about seventy-four.” It’s enough to spark an existential crisis every morning while I’m getting my coffee. And given that I’m in my mid-30s, going through a substantial life transition, I don’t need much help reaching the point of existential crisis.
Like Ruth, the writer of Ecclesiastes is bothered that “wicked people” . . . flourish.People having an existential crisis have historically turned to philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, Socrates—for answers, if not to their faith. But recently, I found an unexpected answer to the problem of why life matters in an unexpected place: the indie black comedy, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.
The catalyst, or starting point, of the film is an existential crisis: Ruth, a depressed nursing assistant played by the excellent Melanie Lynskey, returns home to find that the silverware she inherited from her grandmother has been stolen. The police are careless, with little interest in Ruth’s grandmother or the recovery of the silverware. To make matters worse, Ruth is coming off a deeply discouraging day at work; the patient she had been caring for utters a racist obscenity and dies.
All this frustration and tragedy leads Ruth to the brink of crisis. At her friend Angie’s house, she finds herself unexpectedly in tears as she tries to read an astronomy book to her friend’s daughter. (The daughter calls out in a panic for her mom.) Later, Ruth explores her feelings more fully to Angie. She recalls the racist patient: “She sucked,” Ruth admits, then adds: “It doesn’t matter. They’ll roll her out, and she’ll become . . . carbon.” Ruth recalls also her own grandmother: “She was a war nurse, she spent her retirement bringing dinner to folks who had cancer.” Unlike the racist patient, Grandma is an admirable woman—beloved, worthy to be remembered.
Yet with the silverware gone, the memory of Grandma is fading. Ruth laments, “I’m the only one who remembers any of that [her grandmother’s good deeds], and pretty soon, I’ll just be carbon.” The cascading effect here—that the racist patient, the grandmother, and eventually Ruth herself, will all become carbon—underscores how fleeting life has become for Ruth. Only a memory of ourselves remains, and when those we loved die too, we vanish altogether. Legacy takes no notice of human goodness. Angie tries to ground Ruth, insisting, “You’ve got it better than a lot of people.” Yet Ruth will have none of it. Haltingly, she responds, “But everyone . . . is an asshole.” To Ruth, human beings are not only incapable of guaranteeing that their memory will live on, or that their life will have any meaning; they are actively working against it.
And in fact, the people in the story are assholes. Angie’s own husband, asked to make up the bed for Ruth, looks away wordlessly and reaches for another bite of his sandwich. Other characters are equally thoughtless. A hefty white pickup at a stoplight belches black smoke from twin pipes into the air; a man Ruth meets at the bar spoils an important twist in her favorite new fantasy novel. Their actions get at the key problem for Ruth: If life is so short, and people are so rude, then how are we to find any meaning or even comfort in life? What does life matter, if goodness vanishes so swiftly?
This is a problem for the writers of Scripture, too. The author of Ecclesiastes laments the prosperity of the wicked and complains that it robs life of meaning:
I have thought deeply about all that goes on here under the sun, where people have the power to hurt each other. I have seen wicked people buried with honor. Yet they were the very ones who frequented the Temple and are now praised in the same city where they committed their crimes! This, too, is meaningless. . . . In this life, good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. This is so meaningless! (Ecc. 9:9–10, 14b NLT)
Like Ruth, the writer of Ecclesiastes is bothered that “wicked people”—a nice biblical term for “assholes”—flourish. Like Ruth, the writer is specifically troubled by the fact that “people have the power to hurt each other” and in fact do hurt each other; their unkindness seems to fray any sense that life is meaningful or worth living. It is the wicked, in this passage, who leave a legacy—buried with honor (read: wealthy), praised by the community; the good are swept away and remembered no more. And ultimately, like Ruth, the writer concludes that this makes life “so meaningless.”
What then are we to do? In the face of life’s brevity, of the flourishing of the wicked, is there any way to carve out some sense of meaning or goodness from life?
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore gives a very mixed response to this question.
Ruth, recovering a bit from her low point at Angie’s house, determines to get back her grandmother’s silver, thus symbolically securing a legacy for herself and her family. This is the driving force of the story, and as with any amateur detective story, the source of much of its humor—often ironic, sometimes slapstick, always sudden.
Importantly, as Ruth pursues her quest, she achieves some success against the nihilism that initially defines her outlook. She recovers some of her stolen property. She survives a serious threat to her life. Perhaps most importantly, she teams up with her neighbor, Tony. Played by Elijah Wood, Tony is a loner with a reputation for being one of the assholes who initially so frustrates Ruth: the first time we meet him, Ruth is angrily confronting him for letting his dog repeatedly poop in her yard.
Yet when Ruth, needing backup and out of options, asks for his help solving the crime, Tony is immediately on board. He is angry on her behalf over the robbery; he volunteers repeatedly to help; he accompanies her every time she sets out to confront the criminals; and ultimately, he puts his life on the line to save hers. Tony is not perfect (at one point, he is embarrassed when Ruth sees porn on his computer), but his imperfections and initial thoughtlessness are gradually outweighed by his kindness and commitment.
Interestingly, Tony turns out to be a Christian, and his faith also weighs against Ruth’s existential despair. At one point, after a temporary setback, Ruth turns to Tony and confesses, “I don’t want to die.” Tony tries to reassure her: “You won’t,” he says. When Ruth rolls her eyes, he corrects himself: “Not . . . right now?” Yet Ruth is not comforted, and after a brief silence, Tony offers to take her to his church.
Wordless, slow-motion, with a gauzy filter, the scene at church, perhaps 30 seconds long, is set to the tune of rock group Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Bring on the Dancing Horses.” The pastor—Rev. Bill, as Tony calls him—is lip-syncing, fully outfitted in green clerical vestments. Despite its profound strangeness, the moment at church is a moment of recovery for Ruth, and it sparks a deeper connection with Tony. She walks away from church in the golden, hopeful light of early evening.
All the same, Ruth’s victory over her existential despair is a limited one.
She recovers her property and survives an attempt on her life, yes, but she is also wounded (her finger is broken). She is often incapable of taking action, ludicrously so. Her life at stake, Ruth is able neither to defend herself nor escape; instead, she throws up. Repeatedly. Her vomit splatters the floor. The scene is darkly funny, but Ruth’s situation underscores her powerlessness. She may long for life to be meaningful, she may long to be in control of her life, but in the end, she is only a character in her own story. Things happen to her; she does not make things happen.
Yet like Ruth, the writer of Hebrews balances this existential despair with an ineffable hope.Perhaps most seriously, Ruth experiences a kind of reverse character arc over the course of the film. The stated purpose of her quest is for “people to not be assholes”—yet by the end of the film, she discovers that she too is an asshole.
Ruth and Tony stop by a rich lawyer’s home during the investigation, but when the visit yields no clues, Ruth is frustrated. She storms out of the home and drives away, taking with her the family’s decorative lawn tiger. Tony protests—“it’s not your lawn tiger!”—but Ruth takes it anyway. In doing so, she becomes what she hates: somebody who takes, without thought for other people. It’s an ironic twist. Ruth once claimed that people who do nothing but take rob life of its meaning, and now, she winds up taking things for herself, denying life the meaning and purpose she has spent the past hour trying to breathe into it.
A tension thus runs through the entire film—on the one hand, Ruth’s desire to find meaning and kindness in life and her partial success in doing so; on the other, her ultimate inability to deny that people, including herself, are indeed assholes. The tension leaves us with the impression that the world we live in does not make sense and in fact actively resists our attempts to make sense of it, to secure some kind of permanence or legacy. Nothing we do or say, the film insists, can guarantee that our life will have meaning. At one point, Angie tries to reassure Ruth: “You’ve got all the time in the world,” she says.
Ruth, who realized at the very start of the film that nobody has “all the time in the world,” replies, “I don’t know what that means.”
Angie gives it up, admitting “it’s just something people say”—a kind of verbal shrug, implying that the platitudes we use to make sense of life will not work. No story we can tell ourselves will make sense of life, or infuse it with a stable, incontrovertible purpose.
Yet ours is not the only story, and the film does not leave us without hope.
At a critical moment in the story, Ruth looks around her for help—and sees her dead grandmother. Grandma is wearing a vibrant red blazer and skirt and holding a cigarette; though she does not speak, she smiles encouragingly at Ruth and gestures the direction Ruth should take.
At the same time, the titular song begins playing:
This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Played in a folksy style, with guitar and piano, the cheery song is in marked contrast to the dark visual tone and danger of this scene. Yet the grandmother’s miraculous aid hints at a possible truth in the song. The world is pointlessly cruel and will never feel like home, as all Ruth’s experiences have proved. All the same, we may find unexpected treasure “somewhere beyond the blue”—a sense of meaning, ambiguous and inarticulate, but nonetheless possible. Ultimately, the film holds out hope, though it gives no logical reason for it; in acknowledging the apparent purposelessness of our lives, we find—unexpectedly, perhaps miraculously—the peace we wanted from the start.
This is, in many ways, the answer that Scripture gives. Faced with the complaint that life is “so meaningless,” Scripture (at least at first) answers Yes. The author of Hebrews, speaking of the Old Testament saints, declares,
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country” (11:13–16 NKJV).
Two things are noteworthy here.
First, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, like Ruth and Tony, the writer of Hebrews recognizes the inherent discomfort of this world, which robs us of a sense of purpose and meaning. As Ruth ultimately comes to realize that she doesn’t, and never will, “feel at home in this world,” so believers find themselves “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Like a traveler in a foreign country, they are unsettled by the order of this world, its laws, the rewards for wickedness and the pain for goodness. The story that the world tells of itself does not ring true for the believers who travel therein.
Yet like Ruth, the writer of Hebrews balances this existential despair with an ineffable hope. The film locates this hope “somewhere beyond the blue”—in an inarticulate, incomprehensible space; similarly, the writer of Hebrews looks for hope in a “heavenly country”—somewhere real, certainly, but inaccessible so long as we live in this world.
Let me pause here; Christian advisers too swiftly jump over this truth, in a hurry to assure people of God’s certain plan for life. Yet what is equally certain is that so long as we live in this world, we can expect to face the same existential doubt that Ruth does. Our personal tragedies and professional disappointments and myriad griefs will often leave us feeling as though life does not matter, and though we put our trust in God, that may seem far away at times, in heaven, beyond the blue. Yet there is a comfort in this realization, that our doubts are normal and that though they will not be resolved immediately, or even swiftly, they will be resolved ultimately, when we are reunited with our Redeemer.
There is a fuller hope, however. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore is of course not a Christian film, and an ambiguous hope, however genuine, is the best that it can offer. The writer of Hebrews offers something more: When we come at last to “the heavenly Jerusalem,” we will find there “God the Judge of all, . . . the spirits of just men made perfect, [and] Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant” (12.22–23 NKJV). The hope here is not imprecise; it is located in a specific person, and a specific outcome. We who believe will see God; he is “Judge of all,” and the justice long waited for will finally be done. We will see Jesus; he is Mediator, and we will at last be reunited with God.
I am struck that the saints who arrive in heaven will be “made perfect”—for as the film demonstrated, we are all, in the final analysis, assholes; we undermine our own attempt to create purpose and meaning out of life. Yet our self-sabotage and error will be done away with in heaven; God will make us whole at last, so there will be no longer anything to interfere with the justice and peace of our new lives.
In the end, then, we come to an uneasy resting place, feeling like Ruth the existential terror of this world and like Ruth hoping for something better beyond it. The reality of this mingled terror and hope will be with us so long as we live in this world. Yet balanced against this we have a greater hope, the answer to all our fears: our God, our Christ, and ourselves made new.
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