A profound divide exists between you and me. It is so basic to our daily human existence that most of us never really acknowledge it. But all the same, it is very real. As inescapable as our ever present need to breathe to stay alive, this divide is part of what it means to be human. But more on that in a moment.
I have a favorite science-fiction short story by author Robert Reed. It is called “Coffins.” In this story, passengers aboard a spaceship carrying them to a far-off destination are placed into individual life support systems. These life support pods are referred to as coffins. They are shaped and sized to snuggly fit one person so that the passenger within can be placed into a deep sleep and essentially stacked and shipped like cargo. At some point during this long journey through space, where everyone is in hibernation inside their “coffins,” the ship is struck by something. The “coffins” are flung out into space. This is where real story begins. We follow one man’s life as he floats through space alone. His only interaction is with the on-board computer that keeps him alive, speaks to him, and even provides him with a vast array of experiences through virtual reality. He goes on to live quite a full life, but ultimately he is alone in his “coffin”... drifting through space. He has to make some choices about how he’ll live out the rest of his life.
When I was only a child, growing up as the son of missionary parents in Brazil, I recall clearly how I used to observe the world, soaking in information like a little alien creature working out what it means to be human. Most days I still feel this way. However, as a child I was not just observing, I was learning to think about life. It was not long before I was thinking about thinking, wondering what it was that was actually going on inside my mind. My inner thoughts began to fascinate me. Without possessing the language to phrase it or the philosophical grounding to explain it, I was exploring inward human existence: the life of the mind. We are, after all, more than just bodies.
At some point, a profound question occurred to me even at such a young age: do other people think like this? Do other people think about life, about thinking? In essence, I was wondering if other people were self-aware. I know, I was a strange little kid, but I could not help wondering if I was alone in this ability to think about myself, about my thoughts, about how I behaved and others reacted. Were others lucid like this inside their minds, or were they merely doing what they were somehow programmed to do, either by some outside force or by nature?
As time passed, I learned that I am clearly not alone in this lucidity. In fact, all humans are what philosophers might call autonomous and self-aware beings capable of such abstract thinking (things like thinking about thinking). Everyone has an inner life of the mind.
But once this realization set in, another thought occurred to me. I am in fact alone. We are all alone. Trapped inside the metaphysical walls of our own minds, we can never step outside of ourselves and fully know another person, experience their every thought, every nuance of feelings woven together with memory that courses through every person every second of their life. That is the profound divide that exists between us all. In a sense, we are all drifting through space in our little metaphysical “coffins.”
And yet, we are not alone. Our entire universe seems built on the idea of relationship. Atoms combine to form matter. Planets orbit stars. Stars cluster into galaxies. Most animals require a mate to procreate and have elaborate social structures. It also seems to me that relationship is quite simply part of God’s nature. Within the Christian framework I was raised in there is the Trinity—three distinct persons, yet one God. The most powerful thing I see in the two creation narratives presented in the first two chapters of Genesis is that God seems to create humanity with relationship in mind. Not so much because God was lonely, as pastor and writer Dave Schmelzer points out. God creates us for our own benefit. Genesis weaves this beautiful narrative about the creation of the world where God goes about making things and then noting that these things are good. In Genesis 2:18, God notes for the first time that something is in fact not good about His creation. Let that sink in for a moment.
Adam is alone. After looking around and noting how many other things he had done so far that were in fact good, God looks at Adam and sees he is alone. The company of the animals will not do. And oddly enough, God’s own company will not do either, it would seems. That strikes me as a bold statement as I write it, but nevertheless, the idea is right there in Genesis. God seems to think that this business of being alone is not a good thing. While Adam enjoys a close relationship with God, Scripture clearly indicates he needs another type of relationship. Thus God made Eve so that Adam would not be alone. And yet Adam and Eve, and all of humanity, remain metaphysically distinct and separate individuals seeking a deeper connection (or, giving up on that, seeking a means to numb our need for that deeper connection). And so we wrestle with this dual nature of our existence. We are individuals bound by physical bodies with minds that can never truly and literally be shared with anyone else. Yet, we crave relationship and connection. We long to know and be known. We need it, in fact. We were made for it!
Ever since recognizing this, I have been in search of some means to burn holes in the metaphysical wall that keeps you and I apart. And at some point, I discovered the cinema.
Storytelling itself is already a way to building a bridge into another's soul, as it where. Empathy with fictional characters allows us to place ourselves in endless circumstances and situations that may well be alien to us. And yet we experience them as if they were happening to us, as neuroscience is discovering.
But the uniquely experiential nature of movies offers us a visceral opportunity to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. This experience sets aside the conscious mind, in many ways, and works on our intuition, emotions, and desires. The power that movies wield is special, and as a species we are in fact still quite new to it. But I believe we can use this medium to help us make sense of life, to become more empathetic, and to help us know we're not as alone as we might feel we are at times.
Movies offer us a transformed reality in which the body is stripped of its material bonds and becomes united with our essential nature as centers of consciousness.
- Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact