Simple Words for Complicated Times

Klavan Draws a Life Lesson out of Cast Away

Andrew Klavan responds to mail on his podcast, and recently he read two letters he’d received in the wake of the abrupt military withdrawal from Afghanistan (Episode 1045, August 27th; podcast here, and YouTube).

The first letter was from Donna, whose husband had been part of the evacuation of the embassy in Saigon in 1975. She was writing because her husband was so distraught over the fall of Kabul that he was waking up with nightmares. She had never seen him this upset, and she wanted suggestions for how she could support him emotionally. The second letter was from Joshua, a combat veteran who’d been talking to brothers in arms at risk of suicide. Just since the fall of Kabul, he said, he’d already had two heart-wrenching phone calls with veterans who were “tickling the trigger.” It seemed to him that everyone who’d ever had PTSD was having it flare right back up again. “I could keep my cool under fire in Ambar and Kandahar,” he said, “but this kind of mess makes me shake in my boots. Please advise.”

Born into a secular Jewish family, Klavan became a Christian after years of working as a novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, and he has a knack for drawing biblical truth out of popular storytelling. I thought his response was helpful for anyone trying to be present and supportive for others.

First, he said, just listen. Of course, this is always a good first move, but it’s worth repeating because it can be so tempting to try to fix someone else’s problems or manage their emotions, and these things seldom help. Following that, he talked about trauma, setting it in the context of what Christianity has said from the beginning: the world is fallen and deeply broken, and despite our most valiant efforts, we can still find ourselves helpless to stop things from happening to ourselves or to the people we love. We’ll use our wits to figure out ways to survive, but no matter how smart we are or how hard we try, the world is a difficult place to inhabit. Things aren’t the way they were meant to be.

And then he made a suggestion. “This may seem like a strange thing,” he said, “but I want to recommend a movie. … a movie that contains wisdom” (which he admitted was a rarity in Hollywood). He recommended the 2000 feature film, Cast Away.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s a little background. Tom Hanks plays a FedEx executive named Chuck who survives a plane crash in the Pacific. Chuck floats in a life raft to a desolate island, but Gilligan’s Island, it is not. The land is wild and hostile. Chuck encounters one survival challenge after another, completely alone. If you’ve seen it, you may remember him carrying on conversations with “Wilson,” the blood-stained volleyball that serves has his only “friend” on the island.

Klavan continued, waxing a bit personal. Several years ago, his wife was suffering from some trauma, and she said something to him in that season that he had never forgotten. “You can get through all of life,” she said, “by only saying three things:

“I’m sorry.”

“I love you.”

“Thank you.”

He found that very helpful, and here’s how he connected it back to Cast Away (spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen it). Chuck eventually gets off the island and makes his way back home, but he’s profoundly disoriented and traumatized. There are no words anyone can say that can make up for what’s been lost. Once back in the world he used to know, people don’t know what to say to him, and a lot of what is said amounts to “I’m sorry,” “I love you,” and “Thank you.”

Near the end of the story, he explains to his friend Stan why, in the midst of profound helplessness and an all but certain eventual death alone on the island, he chose to live with faith and perseverance. It’s not a faith film, but at a low point where he was contemplating suicide:

This feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow, I had to keep breathing. Even though there had been no reason to hope, and all my logic said I would never see [home] again.

So that’s what I did. I stayed alive. I kept breathing. And one day that logic was proven all wrong.

Cast Away, Klavan said, is about trauma. It’s about helplessness, and it’s about grief. He pointed out that the film’s title is two words, not one, because the world Chuck knew had thrown or cast him away from everything safe and familiar, and he had no way to return. It’s about things that are lost and that we can’t get back, ever. But it’s also about perseverance and hope, despite the loss. Once home, Chuck is grateful and chooses to keep living with hope.

As summer gives way to fall 2021, the past eighteen months have brought profound disruption and loss. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t lost something or doesn’t feel in some way disoriented. I know I have, and I do. But as a Christian, I also know God sees, and he knows. And so, there is reason to keep living and to live with hope.

I found these suggestions helpful as a starting point for listening with compassion, and dialing down where we can the stress and strain for one another. I hope you do too. If you’d like to hear Klavan tell it all himself, the segment on the podcast here or YouTube video here starts a little after 1:29:00 and runs for about ten minutes.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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