Detachment

I wrote this a few months ago but never got around to publishing it. I’ve been thinking about the concept of detachment lately and hope to explore it a bit more in the near future, so I thought it might be a decent (admittedly unsatisfactory) primer for further discussion.

I watched the movie, Detachment (2011), last night – for no particular reason, really. I just saw it on Netflix and noticed it was about a teacher, so I thought I would check it out.

Detachment stars Adrian Brody, and if I remember correctly, he also produced it. The movie follows the life of a long-term substitute name Henry (Brody). Henry takes over an English class at a Title I school on the brink of administrative and curricular upheaval due to their low test scores. While the movie includes a politically charged message critiquing “No Child Left Behind”, the central theme transcends base political policy.

The movie begins with the following Albert Camus quote: “And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.” Throughout the story, we see Henry wrestling with this perceived reality. He longs to make a difference in the lives around him, but detaching himself from himself and the external factors bombarding him seem insurmountable, but he feels that overcoming these obstacles is the only way to change the lives of the kids. Even when he succeeds in detaching himself for a brief moment, he unavoidably attaches himself to a world fraught with just as many problems as his own.

In form and content, the movie portrays the weight, brokenness, and hopelessness of our lives and our world. Person after person is crushed (physically and/or emotionally) by the burden of life. While a glimmer of hope is revealed in the transformation of a child prostitute by the familial love Henry has for her, he eventually calls CPS, and she is whisked away to foster care.

The movie ends with their brief, joyful reuniting, followed by the long-term substitute staying with the students at the school he meant to leave. He reads to the students from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” As he reads, the school devolves into shambles – tables overturned, paper strewn across the floor, students themselves removed. Sitting alone on top of his desk, looking out at his disheveled classroom, Henry closes the movie with the words of Poe:

“I looked upon the scene before me…upon the decayed trees—with an utter depression of the soul…There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the soul.”

Henry’s imposition of Poe’s words onto contemporary life is a clear reflection of some key postmodern ideas. Religion failed us. The Enlightenment and its promise of progress failed us. So what do we have remaining? Decay – the depression of the soul. Nihilism.

Hope is stripped away, and the striving to “just make it” (the words Henry uses to encourage a child who eventually decides she can’t make it anymore) replace the collapsed constructs.

I was struck with a few things as Poe silenced to black:

  1. I think many of us, if we are honest with ourselves, are crushed by the burdens of this world. We are always hoping to detach from something and hoping to attach to something else. This something has a transcendent quality, something that is outside of ourselves – even if we say the thing we are attaching to is neutral. Our day-to-day life, and the emotions connected to them, indicate our desperate desire to just “make it”. To be ok with ourselves and the world around us. I think ALL people experience this – the religious and the non-religious alike. Some, out of fear, just feel like they can’t say anything about it
  2. I think this postmodern recognition is entirely needed, and I am glad it is being represented in one way or another. I also like how literature plays a role, albeit an insufficient one, in making sense of our place in the world.

Yet, I came away longing for something – something ancient, something substantive.

Hope.

The movie makes it very clear that hope is a transient thing. It comes and goes; it is a will within each and every one of us, but it has no substance of sorts, no telos outside of oneself. Yet the burden of life renders this flimsy hope useless.

Therefore, man becomes detached from hope – at least a transformative form of hope. To dig even further, because man is detached from hope, he is also detached from a story. This story is the very thing that brings hope. It is not just hope of a future eternity, but a hope of new life here; a hope waiting to burst through the fallen planks of our decayed house, longing to restore all things to its proper place.

Man is not meant to detach himself from his story, but instead attach himself to the story which guides his story, the one filled with the only sustaining hope, a hope which is oftentimes overwhelmed by the burden of life, yet actually overcome by the yoke of cross.

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