Saturday, March 01, 2014

Life Swimming through the Sea of Time

I recently watched three movies directed by Richard Linklater, made nine years apart, that look at three days, nine years apart, lived by characters played by Ethan Hawk and Julie Delpy. In the first, Before Sunrise, a young man and woman meet on a train and spend an evening together in Vienna, sharing their philosophies of life, falling in love, only to depart with a promise to meet again. In the second, Before Sunset, the characters meet again after a nine year absence (they didn't make that promised connection from the first movie). Now 32, they spend the day wandering the streets of Paris, talking about their philosophies of life and throughout you wonder if this will only be a brief encounter again. In the most recent film, Before Midnight, they are now married with twin daughters, on a sabbatical in Greece. Now 41, and parents, (I'm also 41 and a parent) they get the all to rare opportunity to have a night to themselves to share their philosophies of life and for the first time in these films, they argue about their disappointments and failures.  At the end of each of three films you wonder, what's going to happen next with these two. Unfortunately, I'm now going to have to wait nine years instead of sliding in the next DVD right now.

What is love? What is life? What does it mean to commit to another? What do we gain and lose when we are tied to a lover, children, family, jobs, locations, and ideas?

I recently listened to a podcast of the NPR program This American Life. The topic for the week was Valentines Day and love, but the stories shared were certainly no Casablanca or even Before Sunrise. In one story a young man, now in his late thirties, described the amazing relationship he had with his ex-wife. They had been great friends in high school, the model of a perfect couple in college, and had a great marriage going until they made the conscious choice to take a break for a month. They never had experienced being with someone else sexually, and they were curious. After all, being children of our society, shouldn't they have the chance to experience being free and having fun? So they did. And one month became two and two become three. Soon, the writing was on the wall and they were finished. At the end of the story the man shared the lesson he's learned. He feels that all relationships need a seven year review (they had been married seven years) and that he will never be in another relationship without that. Which, then at the end of the story, the show host Ira Glass expressed how he disagreed. The "hip" and respected Glass actually shared an old fashioned, romantic view of commitments and marriage. The guy was left almost speechless. "I don't usually hear people say that. I'll have to think about that," is all he could say.

There is a really nice dinner scene in Before Midnight where our 41 year-old couple dine with three other couples; friends they are spending the summer with. The youngest couple (about the age our couple was in Before Sunrise) speak of their long-distance romance and Skypeing together as they fall asleep each night (If only there has been Skype, or even the internet in 1995... yes we 41 year-olds are old). They expressed the same philosophy of commitment and romance as the guy on This American Life. They know it's only temporary. Why not enjoy the here and now, and let's not pretend its forever. This fairly common view among young adults today, and was no surprise.

It's interesting though to compare this common belief among young people with what I experienced last week when I got to meet two couples in one day. The first couple I met has been married 63 years. They were together as the husband was continuing to recover from illness his wife was by his side. The second couple I met has been married 70 years. Yes, SEVENTY years! They live in their home and the husband does all he can to take care of his wife as she struggles with cancer. I immensely enjoyed meeting all four of them.

I'm sure for both of those couples they've had their share of philosophical conversations as well as many ups and downs in their relationships. Marriage is work, just as all relationships are work. So many of our instincts are to just take care of ourselves. Leave me alone and let me do what I want. We have instinctive radar that tells us what is fair and who has sacrificed more. The fight they have in Before Midnight, is a conversation every healthy couple is going to have.

But underneath all of this is a deep truth about life. We are simply sojourners. We only take up temporary residence here. Even the man who has lived in the same home since he was four is a sojourner. After he's died, the home sits empty with the residue of former dreams, conversations and arguments still echoing the halls. A point beautifully made in the three Before movies is that our characters briefly pass through centuries of history in Vienna, Paris and Greece. They are surely only sojourners. The question is, will they choose to sojourn together?

There is wisdom in Psalm 90:10 "The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away." How do we spend those years. They surely could be only "toil and trouble," for we all get our share of that. The intelligent, successful characters in the Linklater movies don't hesitate to express their struggles with life's toils. But those toils need not define us.

Over the past couple years I've read the four John Updike novels about the character Robert "Rabbit" Angstrom. Updike re-examined the life of this character every decade covering the years 1959, 1969, 1979 and 1989. They were fascinating to read, and not so much because Rabbit was such an appealing character, but to examine the way life swims through the vast sea of time, free to go all sorts of directions but always within that sea. Like the Before movies, I got to read them all after they were completed. How fun to view the sea... to view life... from hindsight.

But we're swimming in it, and it's hard to think straight, especially when the winds pick up and waves rock us to and fro.  It's no surprise that people struggle with these questions, and that new generations would dare to choose to give up on commitment completely. Selfishness is at the heart of sin... and humans have been sinners for a long time. I think about that young couple in last movie, Before Midnight, who seem so liberated and free.  They're not going to be bogged down in sentimental romanticism. They don't believe in God, or marriage, or duty... just themselves and the moment. Having the view of hindsight, we have a good idea of what lies ahead for him and for the guy telling his story on NPR. The days will tick away and they will "fly away."

Just as Genesis speaks of selfishness being central to sin, so does it speak of us needing others to make it through this life. God made a partner for the first human, and so we will continue to struggle with how to be independent and free and still yearn for the companionship of a partner. Instead of pulling my hair out in frustration because "kids today just don't get it," I'm going to be optimistic because there have always been "kids today." Hindsight is surly 20/20. Hindsight through faith is truth.