Living isn’t always easy. This, of course, should go without saying. And, in some ways, that’s the problem. Because this tweetable saying has become a given in our conceptual world as humans, we often can be blind to those around us who feel it a bit deeper than the rest. Some people, it seems, wear life’s difficulties like it’s a jacket, a jacket with the weight of the world in its pockets. How can we look at someone and remind them that “life isn’t easy” when they know that truth more than you do? When the stench of death pervades their life stories, when they have known suffering more than joy, and when their interior life is often fraught with confusion, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. When they have struggled with wanting to die.
I should know. After all, I have just described to you my own story. What often feels like a famine, a ghostland. Perhaps that speaks to why Pascal Laugier’s GHOSTLAND so resonated with me. In it, we think we are being given a typical home invasion movie, but that is far from the truth. From the director who gave the world of cinema the emotionally devastating and brutal film MARTYRS, Laugier shows us a story of coping mechanisms. After their new home is broken into and their mother attacked, sisters Beth and Vera, you think, have somehow escaped the house and fled from the lunatic’s rage (a lunatic who stays in the houses of his victims and dresses them up like dolls). But this is where Laugier’s swerve comes.
While up to this point in the film, you are made to believe Beth has become a successful horror novelist and her mother and sister Vera, who has gone insane, live back in their old house, choosing to stay even after that heinous attack. But what has actually happened in reality is their mother was killed in the attack and all of these “happy moments” are in Beth’s imagination. In other words, her coping mechanism in dealing with her trauma was to dissociate. Even worse, both Beth and Vera, who isn’t actually insane, are still prisoners in their own home. They never left. With violence and death around her, Beth has to fight the temptation to not escape reality again, to back to her coping mechanisms instead of facing what lies before her. Laugier gives us a film which confuses the viewer between knowing what the delusion is and what the truth is.
In seeing this film, it gave me space to reflect on my own story, growing up with health problems and hospital visits, with severe depression and anxiety, with bullies who verbally and physically abused me, who wanted me to die. The film gave me pause to reflect on all those who I’ve lost – a family friend when I was in high school and nearly losing my mother to cancer, my grandmother and uncle and nearly my father when I was in college, and my other grandmother a few years ago. I have rarely known a season of my life which was untouched by suffering. These past few years, trying to diligently be a good graduate student, have proved to be isolating and lonely. Far from the joyous engagement of lively conversations over good food and good friends, time seems to be spent in mostly quiet rhythms of class and homework, cloistered off in one’s own home. Perhaps this was part of Laugier’s invitation in giving us this film – everyone’s mind operates differently and, as such, we all handle the brutality of life in different ways, especially if life has been a bit less brutal to us personally.
And it is often hard to make space for this kind of honesty, is it not? Growing up in the Southern United States, in the Bible Belt, this kind of raw honesty is not always welcome. And being in a graduate school where everyone is studying Christian theology and how to live out one’s faith commitments, it often seems like a place which asks us to simply fall in line and don’t bother others with your life. At least, it can feel that way, can’t it? For those who can relate, it is often hard to speak these words because you are afraid people will walk on eggshells around you, as if you are some dainty, fragile thing. You say to yourself, “If people really knew my life, I’m sure everyone would leave me.” This negative self-talk creates this cavern in your heart where you feel numb and indifferent. And yet, if we allow ourselves to get out of our own head, we might be able to see some things as they truly are. For example, in the midst of her trauma and violence, Beth was never alone. She always had Vera. Vera never gave up on her, even when Beth wanted to give up on herself. Even until the end of the film, Vera never left Beth behind. She loved her and cared about her.
As we try, little-by-little, to life our weary heads, we can get a glimpse of how we can respond well to our tragedies, to lives marked by brokenness – lamentation. Deep from the marrow of our bones and the depths of our soul kinds of grieving. One of the best visuals I have ever seen of this kind of response to grief comes from David Lowery’s film A GHOST STORY. After the loss of her husband C (Casey Affleck), M (Rooney Mara) is overwhelmed with grief, but in subtle ways which are rather haunting. In the most emotionally evocative scene of the film, M is sitting on the floor, eating a pie, and weeping. It is an image which has seared on my imagination. She is overwhelmed with grief and the tears must come. While A GHOST STORY seems to conclude with some notion of the indifference of the universe and GHOSTLAND with a reminder that one must face the truth, with the aid of the Christian tradition, we must also remember to hope. A person without hope, without a vision for all things being made new, can quickly find themselves paralyzed by the brutality of life’s brokenness and what seems like, similar to A GHOST STORY, the universe’s indifference. This is where lamentation can be a powerful tool. In the Christian Scriptures, the collection of Psalms is littered with every conceivable human emotion possible. As such, it invites us to be truly human. We can cry out and say, “Why are things this way? This hurts and I am angry about it.” Lamentation gives us space to not gloss over the pain in order to get to happiness like it’s some cheap fix.
Furthermore, from a Christian perspective, we worship a God with scars. In the Jesus Christ, the God-Man, we find a God who entered human suffering and became well-acquainted with it. And He is not indifferent to it either. For those who have done evil against us, even when human systems or authority figures fail to bring them to justice, He will. He will not overlook the evil which has been done to us. In my own struggles with depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicide, one of the things which kept me from giving up was that promise. Even when my body seemed to betray me, when my depression and anxiety flared up, when it seemed no one wanted to ask me how I was doing, I knew I had not been forgotten. God had not forgotten me.
While Laugier’s MARTYRS left me emotionally spent and exhausted from its combination of brutish violence and clinical savagery, GHOSTLAND felt like catharsis to me. The film allowed me to see the story as a mirror, as a way to hear the Spirit speak and remind me, just like Vera never left Beth, so too would I never be forgotten. That, in truth, despite what I told myself, I did have people who cared about me, who were tangible expressions of God’s presence to me. Even when violence, death, and trauma still affect my body, I didn’t have to give up. It may not be easy, but every day we have the opportunity to not give in to the desire to give up. As the Christian tradition has taught for over a millennia, in the resurrection, we will no longer know pain, sorrow, or broken bodies. Instead, we will know joy, freedom, healing, and full acceptance – all of which, even know, can be known in part.
Keep going, friends. Keep going.
*If you are really hurting and are struggling with suicide, please reach out for help and talk to someone. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.*