Monday, April 25, 2011

Some musings on a movie and the place of yoga practice in our lives

Over the Easter weekend, I saw the movie Never Let Me Go. I hesitated to write about this movie; it's so powerful and well-executed that I couldn't get it out of my head for a while after the movie, and I risk doing it a gross injustice by writing about it. But I need to get this movie out of my system, and I think writing about it might help. Warning: The following contains serious plot spoilers. If you intend to watch the movie, and do not want to know what the movie is really about, read no further. 

In order to get a sense of what the movie is about, let's do a little thought experiment. Suppose you are a kid who attends what seems, to all appearances, to be a very fancy and select English boarding school. You are never allowed to leave the school grounds; there are rumors about terrible things that supposedly happen to kids who try to leave. But in any case, not being able to leave the school does not seem to your young mind to be such a big deal. The school provides you with everything you can possibly need, and all your waking hours are occupied with classes of all kinds to keep your mind and body in the best possible shape (music lessons, art classes, physical education classes, you name it). The teachers at the school also seem to take particular care in your health: "Keeping yourself healthy inside is of paramount importance", one teacher constantly reminds you. You form close bonds with your schoolmates, and life seems, well, good.

Then one day, you discover a terrible secret: You, along with all the other kids at the school, are actually a clone who has been created and raised for the specific purpose of having your vital organs harvested (the euphemism is "donated") as replacement parts for what are considered "real" people when you come of age. There is no escaping this fate: It is only a matter of how many donations you go through (it seems that the maximum number of donations any clone can go through is four) before you "complete."

The movie follows the life of three individuals (played very superbly by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield) who attended this school, and depicts their attempts to make sense of and come to terms with their not-very-long lives before they "complete". As we follow these three persons through their lives, from their seemingly idyllic childhood at the boarding school through their early adult lives and eventual "completion", we empathize and feel for them as persons; persons who just happened to have been made for a very specific purpose. As an aside: One plot-hole in the movie, in my opinion, is that there was never any kind of explanation given as to how the greater public (the "real" people) can ethically justify cloning and using what are clearly thinking and feeling persons for such a hideous purpose. But maybe this is a conceit we the audience are supposed to accept and just kind of go along with...

The movie is powerful: Several reviewers have commented that they were so overcome that they couldn't say anything for a while after the movie ended. One question the movie brings up is: What is a complete life? After all, as Carey Mulligan's character in the movie observes, it is not clear if her fate is really so different from the fates of "real" people; after all, she observes, "we all complete."

The movie not-so-subtly brings up this question: What should a complete life consist in? Should it consist simply of having gone through a biological life span, having long or short it is? Or is there a way to live a fulfilled life, over and above simply "completing"?

A rather dark thought occurred to me as I think about these questions: There is a sense in which we are all "donors." We don't donate organs (at least not when we're still alive), but we donate other aspects of ourselves to the world around us as we go through our daily lives. We expend our lives donating our energies to things that we deem to be worthwhile: Work, family, hobbies, favorite causes (does yoga fall into this category?). And when we run out of energy to donate, we die (or "complete").

On an even grimmer note, when it comes down to it, is the yoga practice simply a way for us to live healthier lives so that we have more energy to donate, so that we can "defer" the inevitable moment when we run out of energy and have to "complete", whether we like it or not?

I think you see where I am going with all this. This all really leads to one question: What is the place of yoga practice in our all-too-finite lives? Is the practice something that gives us more energy, so that we can get more out of this finite lifespan before we "complete"? If so, it looks like we have two alternatives: We can either decide that this is too depressing (and get very depressed about it), or we can try to embrace this reality, and decide that if these are the parameters of our human condition, the only thing we can sensibly do is to use the practice (and whatever other resources we have) to put us in the best possible position to make our finite time here as fulfilling as possible. But what, then, counts as "fulfilling"? Uh oh, another can of worms... I don't know. Let me venture to say that perhaps life is fulfilling only if one can create some useful meaning out of it, and creating this meaning, whatever it is, is something we need to do if our lives are to be in some sense fulfilled and not just "complete".

Heavy thoughts these are, but perhaps not too inappropriate for the Easter weekend?      


  1. I'll be watching it when it comes down to Singers.

    Over the weekend, I also watched not 1, but 3 equally intense movies. The Girl who Played with Fire, The Eagle and The Nowhere Man (Korean). I'm all washed out by the intensity and haven't quite recovered.

    What counts as fulfulling differs from person to person. A friend chooses to spend her time smoking away even though she's severely asthmatic. Another one chooses to be by her married lover's side even though it is considered morally wrong.

    But who are we to make judgement?

    To the girl who smokes, she find fulfillment in taking puffd of poison in her lungs. To the woman who is mistress, she gives comfort to a man stuck in marriage that was wrong from the beginning, never asking for him to leave his family.

    I don't know. I just hope by the time I complete, I'll leave this life without regrets knowing that I've tried my best in everything, including the practice.

  2. I saw The Girl Who Played with Fire too. Actually, I saw all three movies in the series, and liked them all.

    Yes, very often people make life choices that we think to be imprudent, unhealthy or immoral. But perhaps we all need to make our own choices, whether they are good or bad, right or wrong, and learn from them. Perhaps the best we can do as friends is to be there for them when they need our support. I don't think "hitting people over the head" with what we think is good or right would do much good, in any case.

    Yes, it'll be good to complete without any regrets (or at least not too many :-)).