Last month my wife and I packed up all of our belongings in a place we called home and headed back to college. But this time, we weren’t going to get degree. We’ll be mentoring students who are on their way to getting a degree, helping them understand their vocation as students and their place in the city.
It is difficult to move, to actually leave a place that was once considered home. On the other hand though, it also infuses one’s life with imagination, expanding the potential of what lies ahead. In being uprooted, I began to wonder whether I was a weed being plucked out of the garden or merely being transplanted to flourish in and bring vitality to a new place.
The process of moving has always meant having to answer tough questions: What do you keep? What do you give away? What have you collected that is junk and must be left behind? And what is of value and worth holding on to?
Two great films in theatres this summer have helped me consider these questions in a wonderful and helpful way. Christopher Nolan’s Inception explores these questions by creating a world where, using a technological device, people are able to enter into others’ minds in the dream state. While the main plot of the film has an action or heist narrative, an important subtext runs throughout the story. We are inspired to wonder how we are able to tell the difference between reality and dreams. There are people in this fictional world that have almost completely given themselves over to living life while asleep and in a dream world that is more compelling than reality. The main character, Cobb, goes through this same process as he grieves the loss of his wife and wonders if he can be reunited with her, even if only through his dream state.
While we cannot enter into others’ dream states like the characters in the film, we are confronted with the same problem. We live in a tension between a future that we must imagine and move toward, and a past and present that have shaped and formed us up to this point. It makes the question “Who are you?” difficult to answer at times. In raising these questions, Inception suggests that meaning is to be found in this difficult choice, making a faith commitment to live deeply in reality.
In a more whimsical way, Toy Story 3 confronts its audiences with a similar problem. In this third film about toys that are animated while humans are not looking or are absent, Andy’s cast of toys are going through an existential crisis. What is Andy going to decide to do with them as he heads off to college? Is he going to take them with him, store them in his Mom’s attic, or donate them to the local daycare center? The comedy has plenty of miscommunication and farce, but eventually we see that the toys need a raison d’Ãªtre that goes beyond avoiding a life of abuse at the hands of daycare children who don’t love or care for them as a true owner would.
Woody, a toy cowboy and Andy’s favourite, leads his toy friends through the process of asking important questions. Woody offers the other toys answers to the fundamental questions: what they were made for? To whom do they belong? In coming to understand that they belong to Andy—he has literally etched his name on them—they remain loyal to Andy and make their way back to him. They also come to realize that being played with is what they were made for; they are given a narrative by the one who loves them, and it is this narrative that gives them purpose. The happy (and touching) ending in this film is that the toys find their true home, in a physical place, but also in a narrative, one that tells them who—and whose they are.
Like great film should, these films encourage viewers to engage meaningful questions. What makes these films great is that they are neither mere entertainment nor merely didactic. In appealing to our own sense of narrative—the meaning for our lives that can be found in the layers of a story—these films help us understand our own uncertainties about who we are and who we are becoming. These are important questions that we are all confronted with daily as we make our way in the world.
I don’t recommend moving in order to create a context to address these questions. However, if you find yourself in a new place, Inception and Toy Story 3 may provide a way to deal with displacement and embrace the potential for growth during the plethora of transitions we as mobile creatures must encounter in our lifetime.