A movie that did the work of a sermon

It’s not often that a movie does the work of a sermon for me — the work a sermon may do, that is, of linking text/truth to some situation in my life and touching it with compassion, perhaps, or conviction.In this case it was conviction, and the movie was “Up in the Air.” 

Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) and Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Up in the Air

“Up in the Air” is a charming, thoughtful film about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who is constantly flying around the country doing his job as a employment termination specialist — he fires people — and whose personal goal it is to accumulate ten million frequent flyer miles. His lifestyle doesn’t allow time for settling down, not to mention long-term relationships, but he doesn’t really mind. In fact, Ryan also does gigs as a motivational speaker, helping people become freer, more unfettered, as he is. The metaphor he uses is that of a backpack, too stuffed with material possessions, too full of people. A backpack that needs to be burned, or emptied at least.

As the story unfolds, Bingham’s philosophy is challenged by people who demand his reluctant attention, and by an affair premised on his own ideas which reveals its true emptiness when he finds himself falling in love. 

The day H. and I went to the movie had been a busy one, a day in which I’d felt the backpack of obligations pulling heavily on my shoulders. I’ve gotten better over the years at discerning what to say Yes to, and better at saying No, but it’s not always the planned involvements and thought-through lists of our lives that get us down. It’s the things we haven’t planned that derail us. When I was a young mom, for example, it was the unexpected exigencies of children’s lives that could upset a nicely considered schedule again and again.

Now I’m in that swelling demographic of women who find themselves looking after elderly parents. Not looking after in a live-in situation, perhaps, but very much on call for driving, shopping, cleaning, decision-making, and so on. As anyone in this situation knows, there’s nothing predicatable about the lives of the elderly either. 

Whenever our obligations overwhelm us, the easiest reaction is frustration with the people who adhere to them. It is they, rather than the tasks, who seem to be hurting our shoulders. And the easiest solution, at least Bingham’s in “Up in the Air,” appears to involve taking distance from those people. But, as he discovers, that’s a pretty lonely place to land. And driving home from the movie, it hit me squarely. The people in my backpack aren’t the problem. As I trace the web of my relationships, in fact, I see that they’re the source of so much of my life’s value and joy. 

The challenge of how to balance the competing demands of my life probably won’t go away. When the kids were small, it involved constant negotiation, inner and outer, between the obligations imposed by their existence and my (then tiny and seed-like) sense of a call to write. And the negotiation never seemed to end, at any stage, and is still going on, now, in figuring out how to best to fulfill my vocation and take care of these other responsibilities too. 

“Up in the Air” clarified my thinking, re-oriented my heart. I realized anew what’s non-negotiable. It really was as good as a sermon. So maybe this week I can skip church. (Just kidding, Pastor Dan.)