Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
As people are wont to do at the opening of a new year, I found myself looking back and reflecting as 2018 rolled into 2019. Reflecting not just on life and on what resolutions I want to meet in the coming year, but on the movies I’ve viewed and how they’ve impacted me. I was surprised to find that my favorite movies of not just the past year, but the past two years, share a common theme: they are sad stories.
Sadness is not something I enjoy dwelling on, and I’m one of those storytellers who believes in writing the Happily Ever After. So it was a bit of a shock to discover that the movies that have lingered in my psyche these past two years are movies of sadness. Perhaps my tastes are changing as I grow older, and growing more refined as I write more reviews, but I think something else is at work. For two years, I have had to reflect on sadness itself in ways I never had to before—in ways I never wanted to. In January of 2017, grief was foisted on me with the death of a dear friend, and, in a moment, I became uniquely attuned to the acuity of the sentiment behind John’s words when he recorded Jesus’ grief over the loss of his friend: “Jesus wept.”
The Bible reserves its most fleeting verse for an emotion that is anything but fleeting. It was as though there was nothing more to say about Jesus’ emotions in that moment because, in his flesh, his sadness was too profound for words. In like manner, at the onset of grief, this is often our first response—the only thing we can manage. Tears and groaning and a wordless echoing emptiness. It is a paralysis that gives way to a search for meaning, though, because we are longing creatures, and although we are “From dust to dust,” we know that what happens in between matters deeply to God—every day a part of our sanctification.
Thus, for two years I think I’ve been drawn to stories of sadness as my paralysis gave way to this search for meaning, and now, looking back, I see—I can see the transformative power of the sad stories that have stuck with me and the importance of such stories in our culture.
Stories in general can give us vision to see more clearly, even when our eyes aren’t clouded by a fog of grief. But stories that allow us to honestly examine sadness and grief have the potential to lead us through the dark seasons of life into hope and joy. In our stories, we tease out sadness. Turn it over and examine it from all sides. In such a manner, sad stories offer us a unique catharsis that can make them more valuable than other types of stories. Stories of honest grief and sadness often linger with us in ways other stories don’t because in our grief we come bare before God—like the Psalmists, like Job, like Ecclesiastical Solomon, like Jesus himself. In sadness there is a search for meaning. A questioning and brokenness. And in barren brokenness, sometimes all we are left with is faith.
But faith is not a weak thing—far from it. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Assurance and conviction are at the heart of faith, and sad stories told well present at least the hint that a eucatastrophe is coming—a hint, if not more, of this assurance that the faith of the characters in the story (whatever it may be) has not been placed in vain. This communicates to the audience that our present sadness is but for a time, and whatever tragedy or strife or loss or unfulfilled longings we are feeling now will one day be wiped away.Some sadness is more acute than others, but all of it is worthy of examination.
This is where my favorite films of the last two years have helped me grapple with my grief and look forward with hope to 2019 and beyond. The sadness in each of these films takes a different form, but it is good that there should be stories told of all types of grief. Some sadness is more acute than others, but all of it is worthy of examination.
In Blade Runner 2049, replicant Officer K (Ryan Gosling) searches for identity, place, and meaning—a search that ends in his death. In Hostiles, three sad stories converge on the Western frontier: A woman who has just witnessed the slaughter of her family (Rosamund Pike), an army captain who hates all Native Americans (Christian Bale), and a Cheyenne chief dying of cancer (Wes Studi). It is a brutal story of hatred, sin, and reconciliation. Netflix’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a story of friends and family torn asunder on the small island of Guernsey during World War II, and the haunting absence of Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay)—a lost mother, daughter, and friend—a woman whose life begs to be remembered. First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from the unexpected angle of how the grief over the death of his toddler daughter fuels his search for meaning among the stars, and how his subsequent professional strivings impact his daily relationships. Even Avengers: Infinity War, the most pedestrian of my favorites, is a sad story in its own right—a story of striving to defeat evil, and failing, despite all heroic efforts.
But none of these stories ends in unresolved sadness. In Blade Runner 2049, as Officer K bleeds out slowly in the snow at the end of the film, he does so knowing he has reconciled a long-estranged father and daughter. And at the end of Hostiles, despite the many (many) deaths, hatred also is put to death, and Captain Blocker gets on a train to the East and leaves behind his bloody legacy. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society offers a love story side-by-side with the telling of the WWII account—not to supplant the life and legacy of Elizabeth, but to make all things new. In First Man, of course Neil Armstrong makes it to the moon and back, and through the glass of his mandatory quarantine, he and his wife lock eyes and brush fingertips. In the end credits scene of Infinity War, Nick Fury presses a pager to summon help just before he dissolves into dust, and on the screen appears Captain Marvel’s icon. In such a manner, these stories walk us through sadness into hope.
T wo years ago, I didn’t know I would need these stories, but I’m so glad they exist—that art exists as a good gift to help me heal. Before I left my friend’s hospital room for the last time, one week before she died, we embraced and she whispered, “I’m scared.” I replied, “I know,” and I tried, in a feeble, fumbling way to encourage her. But I didn’t know, and I still don’t. I don’t know what that fear before death feels like—that knowledge that one foot is on death’s door. And for a long time after, all I knew was sadness and the grief that chases and mocks the empty spaces where she once was. Even though I knew then, and I know now, that I’ll see her again one day in Heaven, the sadness was overwhelming. But that also is how Jesus grieved. Jesus wept for Lazarus, despite knowing he would shortly be with him again. The grief before the eucatastrophe makes the eucatastrophe complete and tells us that a sudden joyous turn is not only possible, but available to us. Stories that walk us through this same progression are good and true and beautiful, and necessary.The catharsis of a sad story is the catharsis of a life lived in expectation that it is not now okay, but it will be okay someday.
Furthermore, sad stories are important because everything is not okay. Not in this life, not since Genesis 3, not since sin crawled into the world and took hold of all creation. It is not okay. Cancer is not okay. Death is not okay. The catharsis of a sad story is the catharsis of a life lived in expectation that it is not now okay, but it will be okay someday. A resolution of contraries is coming that will dry every tear, fulfill every longing, heal every hurt, and lower every fist raised in conflict. This is why we need sad stories to lead us through empathetic grief into faith and hope. Sorrow does last but for a night—even if it’s a long night—but joy comes with the morning. This is a hope we can always cling to, no matter what our sad stories might be.
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