In my blog I’ve often noted a crisis of spirit in the modern world. Organized religions of the past can’t stand the scrutiny of logic and reason, while logic and reason can’t really give a sense of meaning to life. There seems to be something more, but our modern minds tell us to disregard anything not provable through some kind of logical, evidentiary manner, so we need up having to choose between holding on to traditional religious beliefs, or simply rejecting all that as superstition and embrace materialism and rationality. But since reason can be used to undermine itself (first noticed by the fideists, then perfected by post-modernists) we’re left with really nothing to believe.
Believe. That brings me to the movie The Polar Express. Movies move me on various levels. Some, like Hotel Rwanda confront real life human tragedy and cruelty, others deal with emotions and dilemmas. I’m not at all afraid to be teary eyed, I’ll willingly throw myself into the experience and wrap myself into the film while it’s taking place. The best are ones that move me at a deep, philosophical or even spiritual level. Where I get tears in my eyes not from the emotions or actions on the screen, but from the deep message that gets conveyed. The Polar Express is one of them.
On it’s face it’s a film about a boy who is doubting the existence of Santa Claus. He’s told his sister all the rational reasons why Santa doesn’t exist — he’d have to fly faster than the speed of light, the size of his sled would be greater than a number of ocean liners, etc. — and is staying up to test whether or not Santa really comes, listening for the sleigh bells and trying to stay awake. Then suddenly a train whistle blares in his room and the room shakes. A huge train is outside his house. He gets aboard and after a variety of adventures ends up at the North Pole, developing friendships with a few other children and getting strange assistance from a ghostly hobo who disappears as soon as he aids the boy. Through it all he can’t hear the sleigh bells other children can. At the end, as he learns the magic of Christmas, he hears them, and is chosen by Santa to get the first gift of the year. He chooses a sleigh bell. He loses it from a hole in his pocket, only to find it the next morning in a gift box from Santa. His parents can’t hear its ring, but he and his sister can. In the end, as the narrator — an older version of the boy — notes how over time all his friends and even his sister came to no longer be able to hear the bell. But he still could.
On its face, a nice little story about the magic of Christmas. And perhaps that’s all it’s intended to be. But I read into it a fable about our modern dilemma. The key word in the film — the one ultimately punched on the boy’s ticket — is believe. To me the dilemma about Santa Claus faced by the boy is the dilemma we face when thinking about religion or spiritual ideas of life. We want to believe there is more than just this material existence, we want to see the world as somewhat magical and with meaning, yet all the evidence we see points to a flawed human nature, and our lives as wisps of sand thrown about by chance and circumstance. The good often suffer, the bad often prosper, and life seems to have no meaning, other than that which we manage to construct for ourselves in our short dance on this planet. But even that is transient and ultimately meaningless — and since the sun will go nova and the universe will keep expanding, we confront the fact there is nothing grounding us or providing ultimate meaning.
And what is the magic? Well, the ghostly hobo on the train Santa Claus are played by the same person (Tom Hanks). He is also the conductor of the train who guides the children to the North Pole…and he also is boy (albeit with a voice from someone else). The animation uses real characters as a basis for creating others, so they look difference, though the resemblance is real. The magic comes from friendship — how the boy stops the train to let another “lonely boy” in, who resists their efforts until he bonds with the boy and a girl who seems to have an intuitive sense of what to do. To me the message ends up being that the magic is real, you simply have to believe. And this doesn’t mean believing in a particular God or faith, but in life. To see the power in oneself and the connections to others. That if one believes in life as more than just a dreary material existence, if one avoids getting caught up in politics, sports, and gossip as somehow the essential aspect of life, and looks at the world as a beautiful, magical place full of opportunity, then it becomes that way.
Of course, there are numerous arguments against this. I teach units on the Rwandan and Cambodian genocide, look at third world poverty and famine, and we see wars, children soldiers, and a host of horrors that defy this nice magical picture from a children’s movie about Christmas. Yet even in those horrors, we see a sense of greater meaning. Romeo Dallaire and Paul Rusesabagina in Rwanda, the experiences of survivors in Cambodia and their actions afterwards, all speak to the great nobility possible in people to choose to rise above the expectations of the moment, defy the collective sense of reality and believe in something higher. These horrors show what happens when we lose sight of the connection we have with others, and cut ourselves off from the beauty of life, only to get lost in the ugliness of hate, ideology, and greed — an unquenchable greed that destroys those who fall victim to it. That’s what makes the stories of those who rise above it so powerful.
So I find a balance. Confront the horrors and learn from them, but to nonetheless believe. To always believe. To keep strong that part of myself that says that no matter what happens, life is beautiful, there is joy, and every day and minute is an opportunity to discover and experience it. To get lost in worries about the transient trivialities of daily life is a waste of time; we should live, not just exist. So I’ll put Polar Express up alongside other favorite movies, such as Mary Poppins and What Dreams May Come. Somehow we need to find a way as a culture to embrace the power of belief, love, and connection without having to at the same time embrace divisive religious structures. We need to find a way to accept the power of the tools of reason and logic without then deriding that which lies beyond reason and evidence as naive, soft, or superstitious. I’m not sure how to do it, we just have to feel it. And a movie like Polar Express helps me feel it, even if I don’t completely understand it.