Monday, November 26, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook and the Spirituality of Imperfection

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

In the darkened theater, as the credits were rolling on this screwball dark horse of a romantic comedy, I turned to Linda and said, "I think we just discovered another Christmas tradition."

Not that Silver Linings is full of Yuletide glow, but it is a movie with a heart and a soul, one that exalts what Christmas wants to be for so many of us.  Because of that it can be forgiven for its imperfect portrayal of mental illness and family dysfunction (I saw a tweet on this last night I thought was terribly arch: "I never knew mental illness could be so good-looking.")

Mental Illness Never Looked So Good

Silver Linings Playbook is about Pat, a high school teacher who, after finding his wife in the shower with another teacher, has a break down, nearly beats the guy to death, and is sent to a psychiatric hospital.  He is still desperately in love with the (ex)wife who wronged him, won't take his meds and is skating a manic step just ahead of more personal catastrophe and another trip back to the looney bin.   He meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who seems every bit as confused and broken and heading in the wrong direction as Pat.  The two proceed to help each other out.  I won't spoil the plot by giving any more details.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence may be so much better looking than your average person struggling with mental illness, but then they are way better looking that your average person, period.  Despite this unfortunate handicap, both of them rise above their God- and makeup artist-given challenges to provide pitch perfect performances.

As a veteran of both sides of the therapeutic and life-crisis divide, I CAN tell you that the performances of every major cast member were just about as perfectly imperfect as you could ask.  Cooper and Lawrence along with Deniro, Chris Tucker and Jackie Weaver inhabit their roles as though they knew something about their characters' inner lives.

Of course this movie does not tell the whole story.  There is as much Hollywood as reality in Silver Linings.  There is enough reality, however, to invite thoughtful human beings into a re-examination of our ideas about the complex, confusing and often anguishing experiences that we lump into the catch-all label of "mental illness."  If you are curious to know more of the facts, I'd strongly encourage you to click here.

As I watched the plot unfold and characters develop, however, I was repeatedly reminded of friends and counselees, hospital patients and homeless human beings I have known over the years, and I felt tears coming to my eyes. I felt myself mourning the courageous individuals I have known who did not make it out of their personal torment while also  rejoicing for so many people I've witnessed write even better true-life screen plays with their lives than the one I was witnessing unfold on Saturday night.

I thought of the close friend I knew in the eighties who was homeless, living out of his car while struggling to recover from mental illness and drug addiction and I thought of the dog he cared for.  That dog was his major therapeutic project, he said, because, "I've never been responsible for anything except my habit, and this dog is keeping me clean and sober."

I thought of the psychiatric patient who carefully explained to me why he was Jesus.  I was reminded of the emergency room patient who stopped in the middle of a rant closely resembling one that Cooper acts out in this movie to look at me with desperate eyes and plead for me to pray for her emotional release.  I thought of a beautiful young woman- Jennifer Lawrence gorgeous-on an adolescent psychiatric ward who planned and participated in a memorial service for her younger brother, dead four years from a successful suicide attempt.

These people and so many more were in my mind as I watched this movie, so that I found myself tearing up at unexpected moments and laughing in between punch lines.

Are We Actually Applauding?

I can't remember the last time I was in a theater, watching a comedy where the audience laughed so much.  It has easily been a decade since I've been in a theater where the audience applauded at the end of the movie.

Yes, the movie has an "R" rating, though I'm a little puzzled at that, given some PG 13 movies that come to mind, and no it doesn't include an overtly Christian message.  

I don't require a movie script, director, or actors to share my world view-- in fact I happen to think in that it is generally a good thing to understand how others who don't share my beliefs or values may see this world-- so those things were not a problem for me.

So Much Depends On Imperfect People Caring for Imperfect People

What Silver Linings did so well was to show the crucial roles that family and friends and all the other "extra-therapeutic factors" play in the healing and recovery that many, many people find on their journey through Bedlam.

It may surprise you to know that while counselors and medications have their role to play, the vast majority of positive outcomes that happen for those struggling with mental and emotional problems are brought about by finding purpose, friendship and the support of family.

Pat's family seems every bit as screwy as he is at times. It becomes painfully obvious that some of Pat's burdens are directly related to his family history.   Growing up in that screwy family has not always helped him.  

Photo Credit: Mark Grace
In the end, however, it is the love, courage and intense, imperfect, often bungling commitment of family and friends that makes the difference for this movie and for its protagonist.  While faith is never mentioned in Silver Linings, I can tell you that my faith AND experience have given me a deep understanding of how people can learn to love one another in ways that heal.

I see it every Sunday when I look at the faces of my friends and parishioners at Iglesia Bill Harrod.

None of us are perfect.  Nearly all of us come to church because of our poignant awareness of our flawed natures, and our desire to find something better than we have known.  We aren't perfect in our love for and support of one another, but what I have seen work miracles is the determined commitment of people to one another, the healing power of finding purpose in serving Christ, and the strength that community provides.

That brings me to the last thing I was reminded of on Saturday night as Linda and I drove home, talking all the way about this wonderful movie.  It is a book written by the chronicler of Alcoholics Anonymous, titled, "The Spirituality of Imperfection."  

As I thought of all the "mentally ill" people I've known and worked with in my lifetime, of the untold number of people bearing wounds in the very core of their lives, I also thought of how much healing I've seen them bring to one another and to my life.  

"We have this treasure in earthen vessels," the Apostle revealed.  For an hour and one-half while watching this movie, I think I glimpsed the genius of God's plan to use those imperfect, earthen vessels to bring healing to this broken down world.

Who are the imperfect, slightly eccentric, and totally committed people who have helped you find healing?  Leave a comment.


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