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Vincent van Gogh put the barrel of his pistol to his chest and pulled the trigger. Earnest Hemingway, three weeks shy of his 62nd birthday, used a shotgun and aimed about a foot higher. Heroine and cocaine took Belushi and Farley. It appears, at least in part, that small armies of sycophants with the power to prescribe presided over the waning moments of the lives of Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith and Elvis Presley.
But you knew that, didn’t you.
You probably even have your best guesses ready as to why. Some reasons might even be romantic: the world never understood their genius; the pressures of wealth and fame were more than anyone could be expected to handle; reality had been a moving target since the first time their overbearing father stuck a microphone in their hand and commanded them to dance.
Truth is this world is filled with celebrity meltdowns. Some huge. Some you saw coming a mile away. For others, the collapse hasn’t happened yet, but you know its only a matter of time. In this world, you can’t just be a celebrity. You also have to be human living in a relational world. And relationships are hard work.
What broods beneath the surface of every public spectacle of self-destruction lies buried in all of us, like the plastic explosive C4–stable until the right charge sets it off. Then, look out!
There’s the man who quietly packs his bag and abandons his family because they aren’t fulfilling him as he thought they should. (He’s been thinking about this for over a year now.) Or the woman who builds an artificial community through her online social network, logging hours each day checking and commenting on statuses and pictures, but never emerging from her home to speak to actual living souls. Or the boy in the hoodie with his headphones. Or the mom who can’t help but see her kids as the thieves who stole away the best years of her life and can’t wait until they’re out of her house.
What about you? What are the reasons you want to blow up? Or bolt? How close have you come? And under what refuge would you have to flee to make a clean break? Have you ever felt that maybe becoming a bomb specialist overseas would be easier than your current domestic gig?
The Hurt Locker is a story about a group of specialists in Iraq charged with the job of diffusing improvised explosive devices (IED’s), often in broad daylight and quite possibly while the architect of the bomb in question looks on, casually fingering the disposable cell phone he married to the detonator in the specialist’s hands.
The Hurt Locker isn’t an anti-war movie. Neither is it pro-war. It takes the war in Iraq as a given, the IED’s as deadly, and the military as a highly specialized organization filled predominantly with men, brave beyond description and at times juvenile beyond belief.
Still, with no margin for error, the members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad volunteer for their work. They sign up for it! Would you?
Jeremy Renner, the lead actor, gives an oscar-worthy performance as an ordinary civilian and glorious warrior who can’t figure out how to be both at the same time. His work in Iraq is about one thing–diffusing bombs–and if he adds anything else to it, he’ll die. His mission is clear and his work is suited to his skill-set and personality type. People in authority over him are in awe and those beneath him are dumbfounded by how he could still be alive. He’s happy as a pig in mud.
Technically, the film is riveting. Borrowing from Roger Ebert quoting the Master of Suspense: “Hitchcock said when there’s a bomb under a table, and it explodes, that’s action. When we know the bomb is there, and the people at the table play cards, and it doesn’t explode, that’s suspense.” This film is about the game on the table.
But it’s also about Van Gogh , Hemingway, Belushi, Farley, Jackson, Smith, Presley, the man leaving his family, the woman in isolation and the mother who quietly resents her children. It’s about public excellence and personal failure. It’s about what it takes to detonate stability.
The Hurt Locker is about how hard it is for so many of us to be about more than one thing at a time.
Most of us, at some point or another, want to run. We dress this urge up in our best rationales: no one understand us; we’re not appreciated for who we are or what we do; we’re not the same person we were before; we’re not being our “true selves” anymore. For many of us, this comes when we’re chin deep in our vows before God and witnesses to have and to hold until death do us part. Or in parenthood.
So we sit alone in our garages, at our desks, in our studios, or wherever thinking life is passing us by while we waste our formidable years chained to another person’s wants or needs. Life isn’t what we thought it would be. Our work isn’t clear or suited to our skill set or personality type. What we wouldn’t give for some det-cord–blow the whole thing to hell.
We begin to think we’re losing our identity because that child or spouse or job seems to demand that we be about just one thing. But we dreamed we were going to be so much more.
If this is you, here’s where you’re dead wrong. No one is asking you to be just one thing. They’re needing you to be more than one thing at a time–and some of it you’re not that good at. The rock star butts up against the reality that every night unknown fans reach for him on stage, but his own daughter seems to just want mommy. The brooding writer easily enters the tunnel which takes her deep into the world of words, ideas and characters, but feels detached at the dinner table and gets uncomfortable and annoyed when asked about her day. The salesman lives for the pitch, knowing he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to hit it out of the park, but tries to spend as little time as possible tucking his own kids in so he can be done for the night and zone out to SportsCenter. The network specialist can’t fix his own leaky faucet, and wonders if his wife respects how hard he works as he dials the plumber’s number.
Tragically, rather than deal with the inadequacy, many surrender to the temptation to just leave the hard stuff in favor of the glory. The problem is the hard places are usually where our relationships attach.
Jettison the hard stuff and what’s left? Glory?
Full disclosure: I am going to Texas to visit my only brother Ryan next week so we can get some time together before he deploys for his second tour in Iraq. The first time he went, his daughter Reagan (yep, named after the other Reagan) was a toddler. She didn’t know what was happening then. She barely understood the passing of time. Now she cries most days because she doesn’t want her daddy to leave.
And I don’t either.
Please pray for them, for his wife Nancy, and for all our soldiers. Some don’t come home, but none come home unchanged. Pray for the soldiers coming home, that they’d love the home the return to.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).