In Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line a dead Japanese soldier speaks silently to an American: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?” When a person's world is shattered there comes a moment, deep within, when they must answer that question.
When the world punches a hole in us we can lose a sense of all meaning and value. Is life any longer a good place to be? Is there goodness in me? Will that be met by the world? By others? Or will they betray me? Not see me? What kind of world do I live in now?
At another point in the movie question is asked: “This great evil, where does it come from? How did it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who is doing this? Who is killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might have known? Does our ruin benefit the earth, does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?”
These are questions appearing in language. We need language and symbols to navigate the shattering people can suffer. For at such times everything is in disarray. We cannot find our footing or bear the load. Our very body cannot seem to hold what is inside us. But language is a container. The words may not come for a time. Sometimes they do not come at all, but even this can be contained and navigated, only by different kinds of symbols. In the second case we need one that can hold non-meaning, a negative space for that which cannot be given in positive terms. A symbol which can hold the mystery of this evil that has stolen into life alongside the life and light. Malick’s film serves for me as such as symbol. It is given in the culmination: the soldier Witt sacrifices himself for his brothers. He lets go of life, accepts the negation of death. It is not an act of suicide, it is an act of love.
Witt is a saintly character in a way which transcends the popular notion of saints and heroes. His is not heroic virtue. It is more a matter of vision than of muscle and will. His final act is not heroic so much as beautiful, and that quality points to its essence. Witt sacrifices himself out of love for his brothers, the soldiers of Charlie Company. This is different to being positively good in the sense of virtuous. We believe at a deep level that we can save ourselves through virtue, through heroic deeds of goodness. But I am human and so am flawed. Darkness has stolen into me too. The secret rage, despair, helplessness, which we all bear but hide from ourselves, is within. By the false standards of the world, which disavows the truth of our nature, I am ugly. We all are. It is not muscular virtue that saves us in Malick’s film, but love. The flaws in human nature render us weak when it comes to the most important things. We cannot take a step. We are less like vigorous animals and more like plants, which can only, gradually, turn their face to the light. It is only given to us to pay attention, which is the truest, purest form of generosity, for it recognises another in their deeper reality, beyond any disavowal. To love, with an attentive, disciplined heart. To wait, to look, and thereby to see. The beauty in us lies there, where we resonate with “light and life.”
I write and focus a lot on character, on building the muscles of virtue and good habits for a good life, but there is a limit to the value and power of such things. I reject heroism. But there is certainly courage and strength in gentleness. In patience. In learning to listen. In not demanding. It is here that we come to see that the world is as it is, not as it ought to be. To see that other people, including the ones we love most, are as they are rather than they ought to be. That they will act toward us as they ought not (and sometimes as they must not). A person's breakdown in trauma or loss constitutes a language; a calling out for meaning to be restored, or violation to be witnessed. It is a calling out for good and not evil at the very base of our hearts. This breakdown may be humiliating in terms of the world’s standards. There may be no dignity in it. (Whoever spoke of the inalienable dignity of man voiced an oxymoron.) It is within our inner ourselves that the restoration happens. By letting go of heroism and giving over to the quiet guidance within us of real love, we find something else inside. And discover that we can be met, looked at, by others with a similar gaze: that the goodness in the world will come to meet us, despite its being mixed with blindness and evil.
These words are by Nick Nolte, who acted in the film, regarding the book on which it was based:
“The question is, is there any place on the battlefield for human compassion? That’s James Jones’ question… [He] wrote a story about his own experiences in war – that men go into war not knowing why – they’re usually indoctrinated to go in for idealistic reasons. Then they realise they’re going to die or they’re going to have to kill somebody and they become tremendously horrified… [He] said that the great experiences he had in the war were, one, the horror, and, two, the day he was shot and knew he was going to die… Such a fear came over him — up from his feet, overwhelming his body — that it stripped away all social and military conditioning, personality, grasp… When you know you are going to die [this] tremendous fear overwhelms you. And in that moment of fright and horror, [you] literally lose [your] self… It shatters all of your social conditioning, your facade, your personality… Something is replaced once that self is gone… into this nothingness…and that’s this unbearable compassion of love…, compassion of love for [your] fellow men… for the fellow standing next to [you]… He said, after you feel that, and have lost your self, then you know you will die for your buddy. And he said, it’s one of the strange ironies that come out of this terrible diseased idea of war. He says he never felt that love again. That the love of a parent for a child comes closest. But the parent still holds on to their identity.”