Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Blessings in Disguise

This post spoils the ending to the film Signs. If you've seen it already or don't mind having the story revealed, read on.

I like big, noisy popcorn flicks as much as the next guy, but I really enjoy the kind of film, book or game that causes me to reflect on my own life. Recently, I was thinking about the 2002 film Signs, and I pulled it out and watched it again. I enjoy it not only because it's a well-done thriller and an interesting story, but also because it's one of the few movies that deals intelligently and respectfully with a Christian character. Hollywood's disdain for Christianity is unsubtle: people of Christian faith in film are usually either wicked antagonists (the classic “wolf in the fold” formula), oddball cultists, or bigoted simpletons provided for comic relief. (You know the ones I mean: they politely assert through plastered-on smiles that everyone who does not believe as they do is going to burn for eternity... but have a nice day!)

Anyway, that isn't why I am bringing up the movie; I'm not writing a review nor a criticism of Hollywood in general. If you're not familiar with the plot, here are the relevant bits:

Graham Hess is a former Episcopal priest. With the help of his brother Merrill, he cares for his children, Morgan and Bo. Morgan suffers from asthma, and Bo has an unusual quirk: she is always leaving half-finished glasses of water around the house, claiming that she can't drink them because they taste funny or are contaminated. Merrill is a former minor league baseball player who always swung at every pitch. (He held minor league home run and strikeout records.) Graham himself had lost his faith in God ever since his wife was killed in a traffic accident caused by a neighbor who fell asleep at the wheel. (The man mentions that he had never fallen asleep while driving before and never has since.) He has recently been having repeated flashbacks of the incident. Her last words to him were to tell him to “see” and to “tell Merrill to swing away.”

Graham's feelings about God are brought into even sharper focus when his family is forced to barricade themselves inside their house to defend themselves against an extraterrestrial attack on Earth. Graham struggles with the problem of evil; he feels abandoned and is angry with God for permitting his family's suffering, particularly his wife's death and Morgan's asthma, and now the alien invasion.

At the end of the film, Morgan is taken hostage by one of the aliens, which threatens to kill him with poison gas. The fright causes Morgan to have an attack and fall unconscious, and Graham must act quickly to prevent his death from asphyxiation. He suddenly recalls his wife's last words, notes Merrill's baseball bat mounted on the wall, and tells Merrill to “swing away.”

Merrill moves in with the bat, and the alien gasses Morgan and drops him. In the ensuing fight, the alien is knocked backwards, causing one of Bo's glasses to fall over and dump water on it. The alien reacts with pain, and Merrill looks around and sees half-full glasses of water all over the room. He proceeds to knock them at the alien to defeat it, while Graham takes Morgan outside and administers an epinephrine injection. He realizes that the asthma attack was a blessing in disguise: it closed off Morgan's lungs and prevented him from inhaling the poison. Morgan revives, and the last shot shows Graham dressing in his priestly clothing once more.

While it was marketed as a movie about aliens, crop circles and such, Signs isn't really about any of that. It's not even so much about faith, as Graham doesn't really demonstrate it: he has to “see” to believe. He doesn't receive signs because of belief, but rather by grace, in spite of his unbelief. What it's really about is how we react to adversity. It's about how sometimes suffering has a purpose.

I've thought a lot about dealing with adversity recently, especially when I was preparing a Sunday school lesson about Joseph Smith's captivity in the ironically-named Liberty Jail. His situation was decidedly unpleasant: he was unjustly incarcerated in a cold, dark, unsanitary basement cell, the ceiling of which was not high enough to permit him to stand erect. He was given only a little food, and that which he was given was so unfit for consumption that he and his fellow prisoners ate only when driven to desperation by hunger. Sometimes the food was poisoned, making the prisoners violently ill. He also knew that while he sat in that dungeon, the people he lead were being persecuted and killed. In that kind of situation, it is understandable that one might feel some amount of self-pity. Yet Liberty Jail is often referred to as a “temple-prison,” a place and circumstance which permitted Joseph to receive important revelations.

I've mentioned before that I have to deal with adult attention-deficit disorder (inattentive type). It has always been a significant problem in my life, partly because it is an obstacle standing in the way of what I want to accomplish, but mostly because of how it affects others with whom I interact:

Individuals with ADHD essentially have problems with self-regulation and self-motivation, predominantly due to problems with distractibility, procrastination, organization, and prioritization. The learning potential and overall intelligence of an adult with ADHD, however, are no different from the potential and intelligence of adults who do not have the disorder. ADHD is a chronic condition, beginning in early childhood and persisting throughout a person's lifetime. It is estimated that up to 70% of children with ADHD will continue to have significant ADHD-related symptoms persisting into adulthood, resulting in a significant impact on education, employment, and interpersonal relationships....

Adults with ADHD are often perceived by others as chaotic and disorganized, with a tendency to require high stimulation in order to diminish distractibility and function effectively.... Often, the ADHD person will miss things that an adult of similar age and experience should catch onto or know. These lapses can lead others to label the individuals with ADHD as “lazy” or “stupid” or “inconsiderate.”

Adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” Wikipedia

I have to give Gorgeous Wife a lot of credit for dealing with my scatterbrained self. ADD is one of those things that, if you haven't experienced it yourself, you can't really know what it's like. It would be like someone talking about the view from the top of a mountain without ever having climbed one, or a man speculating on how much it hurts to give birth. From her perspective, it must be difficult to comprehend that a person could have so much trouble with tasks that seem so simple to her, which makes me all the more grateful for her understanding attitude towards the situation. What upsets me most is that she has to be so understanding in the first place.

I try to make things easier on her. Medication helps, though there isn't a “silver bullet” that makes all my symptoms go away. With the medication's recent decrease in effectiveness, I've been taking a closer look at my “coping strategies:” the artificial mechanisms that I employ to compensate for my natural deficiencies. I have to set alarms to remind me to do many things. (Have you ever set an alarm to remind yourself to do something in five minutes? I have.) I have to devise mnemonics or write notes to remember things that most people could confidently keep in their heads. I have to take steps to counter my mind's natural tendency to get distracted by other things or just go off into space. Part of me is annoyed that I have to take these artificial measures in order to function, while others seem to accomplish them so easily. For quite some time, I thought only negatively about my condition. Not to be melodramatic about it, but it was my curse.

Eventually, I discovered that there were some positive aspects to it. I learned that if I worked hard enough at corralling my wandering attention onto one activity, I could sometimes coax it to shift into a sort of hyper-focus, where I would lose awareness of everything but the task at hand and nothing short of a fire alarm could distract me from it. This does have its own set of problems. In this mode, I might have a conversation with someone, but my mind is still entirely on my task, and upon their leaving the room, I would not only have forgotten what they said, but that they were even in the room in the first place. But it is good for “buckling down” and getting something accomplished, even though it is tricky to get into that mode.

But probably the biggest revelation came a while back when I was speaking to my mother. We were talking about my daughter's progress in dealing with autism, and I mentioned how I felt that I could very much relate to her circumstances, to the frustration she must feel that she finds it so difficult to accomplish things that others are able to do with ease. My mother replied that perhaps that was why I have ADD, so she would have someone who understood her in a way that most people couldn't. I had thought of my better understanding of my daughter's condition as a result of my ADD; it had never occurred to me to that it might actually be a reason for it.

In Signs, nearly all of the characters have something happen in their life that ultimately contributes to their survival during the invasion. The neighbor fell asleep at the wheel that one time and accidentally killed Graham's wife, but the flashbacks of that incident showed Graham the way to help his family survive. Merrill got the home run record so that he would have his bat hanging on that one spot on the wall, right where he could get at it when he needed it. Bo left water around the house so that they would have an extremely potent weapon against the alien easily at hand. Morgan had asthma so that he would survive the poison gas. Could it be that my struggle with ADD was to prepare me to have a daughter with autism?

People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance.

I'm sure the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights [on the alien spacecraft] in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they're on their own. And that fills them with fear. Yeah, there are those people.

But there's a whole lot of people in group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they're looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever's going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope.

So what you have to ask yourself is: what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?

Graham Hess, Signs

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