January 2, 2013

CULTURE: The Pain of Loss

There is a scene in Star Trek: TNG during which Commander Riker is explaining to Data (an android) why one individual's death might cause more emotion than another's. An officer has just died in action, and Data wants to know why everyone is asking "How well did you know her?" Data, devoid of emotion, is puzzled by the connection between how well you know someone, and how deeply you mourn their passing. Riker tells Data that humans grieve more for someone we know well. He concludes with an astute observation, iconic to Gene Rodenberry's world vision: "How different this world would be if we felt the pain of every person suffering, not just of the people we are closest to."

Yes, indeed, how different that would be! For one, we would never stop weeping. Reading the news, we would be reduced to tears every day. Feeling intense sorrow for each human death would incapacitate us completely... yet I can't help feeling that we should expand the potential for this, rather than backing away from it. We should be more compassionate, more open to others' pain.

As if to mock or make the point, I later emerged from the cinema with red eyes. I was weeping over the loss of a friendship between a fictional character and a wild tiger. Life of Pi is gorgeous and profound. I cried, I gasped (a true 3D adrenalin rush), and my heart melted at the subtle treatment of the rich dialogue. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the book or simply for its stunning visual lushness.

This 3D masterpiece is getting great reviews. It was directed by Ang Lee, who also directed Brokeback Mountain, Sense and Sensibility, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Strangely enough, I enjoyed the movie for completely different reasons than the novel, written by Canadian Yann Martel. The novel demands a lot of one's imagination, as a boy and tiger struggle to survive after fleeing a sinking freighter. The movie offers the visual details on a platter, and lets the mind focus more on the spiritual and philosophical details of the story. The "twist" at the ending is as intriguing in the movie as it was in the book, which generated a lot of lively book club discussions. As the movie concludes, the narrator (a grown Pi Patel, played by actor Irrfan Khan) offers an alternate version of the events. Then he asks his friend to choose which version he thinks is the "true" one. The answer is irrelevant. As Patel notes "It is as God wishes."

Martel's keen philosophical insight about religions blooms here - we believe what we choose to believe, and when we invest in a belief, we see it as truth. Yet how can all religions be the same truth? One thing religions do have in common, though, is the power of love. All religions preach about love. And love makes us cry.

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