I love movies. I grew up in a home that cherished trips to the cinema over a weekend camping. (I still got the best of both worlds by being a Girl Scout, so don’t fret.) Like any kid, my favorites consisted mainly of Disney classics, but I always had a hankering for action-packed adventures. Probably from being raised off of Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park.
Some kids may have played House, but 6 and 7 year old Bethany was always Sarah from Jurassic Park. (Though I always wanted to be one of the male characters played by my two boy friends. Needless to say, Bethany’s version of Sarah was not to be messed with.) With my trusty camera in hand, me and my two best buds at daycare would spend the afternoons running away from imaginary T-Rex’s and miraculously surviving violent, insurmountable odds in our self-crafted sagas. We, the three Jurassic Park kids, were the immortal protagonists of our imaginative games, free to safely escape reality into the realm of ancient beasts.
Of course, reality always hit home. “Bethany, your dad is here!” a self-appointed watchman child would squeal. Papa Ernst would pick-me up, and our adventure would be paused, resurrected the following afternoon in another wild chase through the jungle. Because no matter how many dinos we fought off, we always survived; that’s what protagonists do, right? Survive.
I sat through almost two hours of complete drama the other afternoon in the form of the movie “San Andreas.” It’s your typical action-packed disaster film, centered on a family of three and two unlikely brothers who get paired up with them. After the largest recorded earthquake in history, a car crash due to said earthquake, being trapped under cement, collapsing buildings, being held at gunpoint, explosions, aftershocks, aftershocks, aftershocks, a plane crash, almost falling into a mile wide crack in the earth, RIDING UP A TSUNAMI WAVE, dodging falling shipping containers and the propellers of a massive ship, the churning results of the said tsunami flowing through decimated San Francisco, driving a boat through a window a building, and drowning–all five of our protagonists survive. And I too, as I sat in the comfort of my movie theater throne, survived the odds. In the last scene, while the five stand triumphantly surveying the damage done to grand ‘ol CA, I too stood alongside them, unscathed from the disaster that just unfolded. Never mind the thousands upon thousands that just perished in morbidly horrific circumstances; we survived. We are immortal.
I love a good action film (though I do love an actually good film better). But being the thinker that I am causes me to consider the subtle messages being sent to me through the big screen. And it hit me after San Andreas; Hollywood has a thing with immortality, and action films have become an easy method to quietly convince us we are immortal. No matter what, once the credits starting rolling, we will still be alive. We are the heroes of our own little stories, the protagonists that will beat the odds. We won’t be an extra who dies in one of the collapsed buildings. We won’t be a nobody who is swept away by the current of a tsunami. We will make it to the end. The happy end we all deeply long for. That I long for.
But, I am not a movie star. I’m a human. And like any human, I will someday die.
Beyond the flashy thrill of most action movies, maybe this is what draws us in, what coerces us into willingly giving our time and money to the media machine: to have that deep-seated fear of our very, very real mortality quelled.
But just like when the watchman-child at daycare would announce my pa’s arrival, reality will hit home eventually. Our delusional invincibility will be challenged. Natural disasters don’t discriminate in their terror. Loved ones die. We may be diagnosed with incurable or chronic diseases. Our lives may look a lot less like a protagonist and much more like an extra. We don’t feel as special and validated as we felt we have ought to been.
But, what if that’s okay? What if real joy can only be experienced when we are living real lives–lives that consist of messy, unattractive truths? Lives that are a bit mundane and normal. Lives that are cut short by tragedy, challenged by adversity that, unlike our esteemed on-screen heroes, we may not overcome.
I once heard a pastor preach on the story of David and Goliath. He recounted the story from beginning to end, and then asked us who we pictured ourselves as in the story. Usually, we place ourselves in the shoes of little but victorious David. We will overcome our Goliath’s even when everyone else runs away! We are the hero, the champion! He offered an alternative that challenged that belief in ourselves.
The story was not meant to allude to our heroism; no, we are the Israelite soldiers too afraid to face Goliath. We are the unnamed extras. We needed a champion to come and save us. Like all the events of history recorded in the Old Testament pointed to Christ, this story too points to him; He’s the Hero. He faced death and actually won. And He didn’t need a special effects team or impossible plot.
All that to say, I’ve resolved to challenge those subtle notions of immortality fed to me through film/mainstream culture/whatever other voice that is in agreement. I don’t need to live under the pressure of being the main character, the superhero. Someone else who was much more qualified took that role.
And truly, what a loss it would be to live life like I’m the hero of my story and never be prepared for the reality of death. No thanks. I want to live very aware of the fragility of these mortal bodies, and recognize that if life’s a story, I’m probably an extra–though I will say, an extra that was loved enough to be rescued by the true Hero.