You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present. (Journalist Jan Glidewell)
Crushed By Unspeakable Loss
On September 11, 2001, Charlie Fineman (played superbly by Adam Sandler), was in a taxi en route to JFK airport to meet his family when he heard the first report of an airplane crashing into a building in Manhattan.
The kids wanted to go to Disneyland, but they…they uh, were already gonna miss a couple days of school, so we had to say no. You know. So I’m going out to meet them in Los Angeles, and on the way to JFK, I’m in a taxicab and I hear on the radio… I get there and the man tells me the plane’s from Boston… another man tells me there’s two planes. Then I go inside the airport and I’m watching. I’m watching on the television… and I… and I… I… I saw it. I saw it and I felt it at the same time. I thought about Geena’s birthmark, and I… I felt them burning…
Charlie and his wife had been deeply in love, with three children, Julie (9 years), Jenny (7), Geena (5), and a poodle the girls adored. To make matters worse, this is not the first time Charlie has suffered grief. An orphan whose parents died when he was in grade school, the aunt who subsequently cared for him after his parents’ deaths, died just prior to Charlie’s marriage. It is as if death and grief have pressed in on him from all sides. Crushed by so much loss, Charlie’s grief has triggered symptoms that have isolated him in a world of his own, a world carefully constructed to allow him to not remember.
When a former dentistry school roommate approaches Charlie on the street, Charlie does not immediately recognize Alan (played sensitively and believably by Don Cheadle). Charlie no longer practices dentistry. He weaves through city traffic on a small scooter, often late at night, apparently oblivious to the risk. The camera follows him on these treks, often photographing him from behind, heightening the sense of isolation. Charlie’s apartment, with large stacks of vinyl records, is where he plays video games and jams to music that harkens back to the days before he had a family. And since the last conversation Charlie had with his wife before her death was an argument over remodeling their kitchen, he has obsessively been remodeling it ever since.
Slowly Charlie’s unresolved grief and isolation disconnects him from life. At one point Charlie is with Alan who turns his cell phone on and discovers his wife has been frantically trying to reach him. Alan’s father has died. “Just died? … Like dead?” Charlie responds. “Let’s go get some breakfast.”
The insurance settlement from the tragedy allows Charlie to construct a little world in which he is alone, with no necessity for memory. The sad irony of course, is that his restricted world and instinctively guarded isolation cannot keep out the reality of his pain. Having lost his family to death, Charlie now is lost, deathly afraid to be found. “I don’t like remembering,” he says. At one point his pain becomes so intense he invites being shot by a police officer, brandishing an unloaded gun in public.
Charlie’s healing begins when a friend (Alan Johnson) enters his world, cares for him, and simply will not give up. Reign Over Me reveals both the destructive pain of unresolved grief and the costliness of a healing compassionate friendship. Alan is embarrassed more than once by Charlie. On one visit to Alan’s office something Alan says innocently sets Charlie off, and in a fit of rage rampages destructively through the hall- ways and waiting room. As the friendship progresses, the costliness extends to Alan’s family.
Partly this is due to the enormous time commitment showing care requires, partly it is due to the inappropriate hours Charlie keeps (often late at night), and partly it is due to the fact that being with Charlie sets into sharper relief some of Alan’s own failure to communicate adequately with his wife, Janeane (played by Jada Pikett Smith). When Alan begins seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Angela Oakhurst (played by Liv Tyler), she must exhibit great patience as well as endure outbursts that in normal circumstances would be considered sexual harassment. And when the breakthrough finally comes, Oakhurst listens from the door of her office as Charlie begins talking about his family to Alan in her waiting room.
Reign Over Me is a compelling and well-crafted film that allows us to see past the surface of life into the deeper recesses of the human heart. Without either wallowing in sentimentality or settling for propaganda it tells a story that celebrates the glory of being human, mourns the tragedy of being human in a world haunted by death, and insists that healing is possible even when our loss has crushed us almost beyond recognition. These are vital themes, the sort of thing every person regardless of culture or age or belief must face, as perennial and as ordinary as humanness, death, and the yearning for hope.
The story of Charlie Fineman also raises a question unique to Christianity and to the view of life demonstrated in the community of believers. It isn’t certain to me that every part of the church will allow professing Christians to suffer unresolved grief without calling into question the very validity of their faith. For Christians this means what will be questioned is their salvation (are they even a Christian at all) or their sanctification (are they a Christian but one badly immature and out of touch with God). The reason this will arise is found in a claim made by St. Paul in the Scriptures.
Writing to the Christians living in the Greek city of Thessalonica the apostle says they should “not grieve as others do who have no hope.” The reason is that Christian belief insists that death is not the end, and that life after death is a reality. “For since we believe,” Paul says, “that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 14). Because of this hope, some might be dismissive of mourners like Charlie who get lost in their grief. On the other hand, it is one thing to hold this Christian hope, and quite another to deal with the intense crushing existential loss and regret and helplessness and fear that swept over Charlie in such an overwhelming way. We may believe that our loved ones are safely with God, but still be stunned by their absence. Embracing those like Charlie in its midst does not imply the church must ignore St. Paul’s teaching but rather apply it as a healing balm for anguished hearts instead of using it as a hammer to enforce conformity.
The Christian perspective is that we were created for community, that our humanity does not flourish fully in isolation, and that compassionate friendship can be a source of healing in our broken world. It’s not surprising then to discover it is a significant theme that surfaces repeatedly throughout the Scriptures. Because we were made for community, made in the image of the tri-personal God, the Fall introduced a rupture in relationships, between God and humankind and between people (Genesis 3). “A friend loves at all times,” the ancient Hebrews knew, “and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17) meaning that true friendships are not restricted to happy times. The Old Testament uses the metaphor of being “woven together” to illustrate the depth of true friendship, recording that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1).
The early Christians were together not just in occasional services and programs, but in daily life (Acts 2:44-47). And Jesus explicitly called his followers to a level of friendship that is costly: “Greater love has no man than this,” he told his disciples, “that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13-14). And to make certain he was
understood correctly, he modeled such commit ment, in both his life and his death. The vision of the new heaven and earth is one in which every tribe and language is not only represented, but living together in harmony (Revelation 5:9; 21).
Reign Over Me is an appropriate film to use within the church, and I recommend it be used to generate discussion. Some will consider it raw in places, in terms of language and sexual suggestion, but its honesty makes these features not gratuitous but essential to the story. Life is messy, offering gracious friendship to hurting people needing healing is never tidy, and people in deep pain often do not maintain polite behavior and language. Expecting people to clean up their manners before we welcome them is a failure to follow Christ in a fallen world. I wonder if it is possible that with the growing diversity in society, increased mobility, and continuing fragmentation of families and homes the need for healing friendships may grow over the next decades.
One of the clearest expressions of grace Christians have to offer is love that will not abandon hurting people when pain is expressed (perhaps inappropriately) and when healing comes far more slowly than hoped or expected.