Sunday, January 16, 2011

Between a rock and a hard place

In the opening shots of his film 127 Hours, the story of an American climber who got trapped by a boulder in a Utah canyan, Danny Boyle splits the screen into three and shows us image after image of people. Crowds of them. People at a football match. People getting off an underground train. We see the busy-ness of modern life, the anonymity, the claustrophobia, the relentlessness. Boyle knows exactly how this will make me feel. I sought release. I was immediately connecting with one of the very things which gave Aron Ralston such a passion for the outdoors. Escape.

Aron Ralston loved to be out on his own, to be free from the confines of urban life, to face the wild with only himself to rely on. But of course what made Ralston’s story as tragic as it became was that when he got in to trouble no-one knew where he was. He had chosen to be alone. And alone was what he got.

As the film is coming to an end Danny Boyle reintroduces his crowd shots. We see the same people. Crowds of them. People at a football match. People getting off an underground train. But of course my emotional response to these identical images is now completely different. It is to openly embrace the safety that suddenly numbers represent. It is the embrace of community.

This story is an incredible metaphor for the dangers of individualism, of shirking community, of going it alone. I was really interested to discover that the book “Into The Wild” had been one of the things which inspired Ralston to embark on his life of the outdoors in the first place. And the journey of Chris McCandless seems to have taken him to a similar destination. In the film version of McCandless’ story the following words are put in to his mouth as a way of showing just one of the reasons why he might have embraced the life of a tramp and headed off to experience the wilds of Alaska alone:

I’ll be all the way out there. On my own. No f**king watch. No map. No axel. No nothing. Just be out there in it, you know. Mountains, rivers, sky, game. Just be out there in it, you know. In the wild ... Getting out of this sick society! Society you know, society! Cause, you know what I don't understand? I don't understand why people, why every f**king person is so bad to each other, so f**king often. It doesn't make sense to me. Judgement. Control. All that, the whole spectrum.

And yet whenever McCandless’s body was found in that now famous old wreck of a bus the following epiphany seemed to have occurred to him: Happiness is only real when shared.

Sure, we’re all broken, messed up and pretty crappy people. But we are also wonderful and beautiful creations capable of love. We’re made for one another. We were made for community. The first thing Aron Ralston told James Franco when they met to help Franco prepare for his role in 127 Hours, was that it was thoughts of his family, those he loved, which give him the strength to keep going when all felt lost.

While talking to Leech recently about life in the country, he insightfully suggested that because there is so much space to share around in a rural setting people are less concerned about letting others in a bit more. Where I grew up people didn’t really knock on each others doors so much as let themselves in. There was an openness which I remember being surprised by initially, having lived my earliest years in a town. In those more urban settings it is as if, given how little space there is, those who get their hands on some are unwilling to give much if any of it up to others. Perhaps they fear that to do so would leave nothing left for them. We jealously guard our spaces with gates and walls and hedges, a car for every member of the family and ipods for whenever we’re in the open.

I can’t think of the word ‘community’ anymore without thinking of Sierra Leone. It is a place where personal space barely exists in the way we would understand it. I remember chatting with my friend Kadie one day before she screwed her face up for a second and then plunged her finger in to my ear. She had spotted something which she felt needed removing. I remember one of our staff saying that she would ‘of course’ organise for someone to sleep in the room next to mine so that I would not need to be in my house alone. Her face was so confused when I told her that I thought I would be okay, wrestling with the dilemma of whether I was just being polite or if I could possibly actually be happy being alone. Afterwards the kids would regularly ask me if I was the only one who slept in the house. “Are you not afraid?” they would ask. I remember another time when two of our boys were to spend the night in a room on their own. When I checked on them later in the evening, and even though they had had their pick of eight beds, they had snuggled together on to one.

People need people. The less money people have the clearer their understanding of this seems to be. Money, and the things which come with it, seem to distract people and fool them in to thinking that with ‘stuff’ they can begin to do without one another. The problem is, whenever we retreat and put up these barriers , as western culture most certainly has done, it is very difficult to claw ourselves out of the canyon we have placed ourselves in.

And so we’re all stuck. We need to be in but not of a western culture which more and more offers a life diminishing. We need to be counter cultural without being anti social. We need to strike out in to the wild. But we need fellow travellers.

Aron Ralson only allowed himself one shout for help a day. He didn’t like the sound of his voice, feeling like it smacked of panic. When I am home and I look around me I wonder how trapped we really are, how heavy is the boulder, how much water do we have left and what would it sound like if we cried out.


Sarah Saunier said...

Like this! Having similar thoughts. The kids also thought that I was crazy for living in the house by myself.

Anonymous said...

This was marvelous!

Anonymous said...

I loved this.

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