In the film Donny Darko, Patrick Swayze plays a self-help guru with a simple-minded solution to life's problems: there are two principles in life, love and fear, and you are always acting out of one or the other. His mindless followers dogmatically push this message, and typical of the nihilistic and cynical ethos of its times, the teenager is the only one with open eyes: he recognises that this way of thinking is too simplistic. By contrast, the adults are moronic at best, and often corrupt.
When I first saw the film I was struck by an ancient Zen saying:
Before my Zen training, I thought that rivers were rivers, and mountains were mountains. When I deepened my training, I saw that rivers were not rivers, and mountains were not mountains. Now that I have realised the way, I see that rivers are rivers, and mountains are mountains.
The first and third perspective look the same - rivers are rivers - but they are very different. The first stage is naive, childish. The second stage is like the step from childhood to adolescence: the student is longer a fool, they think critically, a bit like the teenagers in Donny Darko. The third stage, however, brings the two earlier stages together in a mature view which neither of them could grasp, one that is best expressed in the original, simple statement. This is how it is with the reduction of life to Swayze's "love and fear."
That reduction appears naive, but of course the highest good in life is indeed love. Not any love of course - not selfish desire or fantasy - but love that shows itself in courage, truthfulness, justice, in a determination toward such values. Love makes life meaningful. It is the fundamental orientation: in the face of suffering, will you maintain a love of life, or will you turn your face away and harden your heart, as so many people do?
And the opposite of love? Profound thinkers like Hannah Arendt, who wrote of "the banality of evil," do not believe that it is hate. Rather its opposite is fear. Smallness of heart. Pusillanimity: a cowardly soul.
The person who fails to stand by what they know is right or true, usually does so out of fear. Likewise, the person who betrays another usually does so out of cowardice - it takes courage to look at the corruption in one's own heart and to restrain it. The person who fails to rise to the challenges and opportunities of a full, adult life - instead becoming dependent or resentful - generally does so out of fear.
Cleverness is often the refuge of cowards. The cynical cleverness of the adolescent, and especially of the older person who never passed beyond adolescence, is ready to mock anything which truly holds them to account and challenges them with what they could become or who they should be. We hide behind sophistication, to hide from ourselves. Love takes courage. Life is ultimately a practical problem. Will you face its basic principles and be honest about the choices you make?