Bird Box, “Deaths of Despair,” & the Gospel

It’s been eight decades since Albert Camus dropped the famous bombshell in the playground of Western culture that the only “serious philosophical question” left for us to ponder is: why not suicide?

What was in 1940 a radical, subversive scandal (and not just in 1940: I remember reading the Stranger, mesmerized, on the campus of UT Austin in a beautiful, melancholy courtyard, during a tumultuous rainstorm in 1995) is, near the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, well, mainstream, bourgeoisie, maybe even blah.

Hence Jay Asher’s 2007 novel Thirteen Ways to Die. Hence a 2015 National Academy of the Sciences report that, for the first time in a century, the mortality rate among “middle aged, white Americans” was on the rise, due to suicide and other “deaths of despair.” Hence the 2016 film “Suicide Squad” (with the sequel planned for later this year). Today, suicide is not edgy and dopamine-producing; if anything it’s banal.

But if its banal, its definitely not pleasant to watch. If one is in doubt about this claim, one only has to watch the 2018 Netflix hair-raiser Bird Box, starring, among others Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich.

Pleasant, no. But disturbing to the point of provoking existential self-examination, yes. There is so much about this film to discuss, but in this brief piece I’d like simply to address one aspect of the film, one assumption that it makes (this being your requisite spoil alert).

In the film, during which one suicide after another takes place, the viewer learns that the motivation behind each decision to end it all lies the root reality of fear and regret. Some quality of the evil “something” which victim after victim sees triggers within them the hyper-intensified memory of something beyond traumatizing, some kind of anguish (remembered or imagined) too agonizing to bear. With dreadful tears of dread, one character after another decides to end it all, with absolutely zero regard for who might suffer from their loss or who might witness the tragedy.

Indeed, the salient assumption in the film is that a typical human life lived in Western society will eventually be filled with such traumatic regret or horror. That is, after spending decades of one’s life in the cesspool of human civilization, the typical adult life (or soul) will be so saturated with guilt, fear, and despair that eventually, and given the right triggers, the thought of continuing to live becomes tortuously unbearable.

The film presupposes, that is, not simply that human life is not worth living, but that it is a given that, in the main and over time, normal human fear, shame, and guilt will accrue to the point of no return and no redemption. (It’s kind of like an alternative version on the level of the individual, of the dark, negative assumptions of modern philosophy at the level of the political.)

This assumption on the film’s part explains the role of the two small children (“Boy” and “Girl”) in the narrative. Since they they have only lived in the hellish wasteland of humanity for a mere four or so years, they have up to this point in their lives accrued a far smaller amount of emotional baggage of the heart, in comparison to their middle aged counterparts. Hence they are able to do things and perform tasks which older characters cannot.

The burden of this modest post is not to take issue with this assessment: it does seem plausible—a mere logical consequence, even—in today’s secular, nihilistic world.

Rather, I’d like to remind my readers, and above all myself, that there is a better way. It is called the way of the Gospel. The way of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The astonishing thing about the Christian Gospel is that it does not live in fear (much less in denial) of the horror of the very real tragedies that exist within us and outside of us. On the contrary: Psalm 88 is utterly devoid of redemption, as is the service of Good Friday (for example, in the Book of Common Prayer). There is a time and a place for horrific, gut-wrenching grieving. Christians are not shiny-happy people.

And yet, when a believer embraces the dark side of reality within her and without, what does she find? She finds God. A Deity of Despair. A Lord of Languish. A Christ, anguishing and then dead, pinned and afixed like a tortured specimen, on a Roman torture device called the cross.

This is the better way, for in the life one who has been crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20), this gruesome darkness is not the end, but the beginning. (For him, in this limited sense despair can be delicious, as Martin Luther taught.) As the story goes, Christ did not remain on the cross or in the tomb.

The senseless suffering, guilt, and pain, it turns out, is not the end. Yet it absolutely must serve as the beginning. The beginning of a new life, victorious over despair.

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