What Makes a Life Matter?
It was thirty-six degrees Celsius around these parts yesterday, which, for many Canadians used to considerably more chilly climes, means a general experience of sticky, sweaty unbearableness that makes us despair of life itself. Well, that’s probably a bit dramatic. The heat is clearly going to my head.
At any rate, I had grand plans last night to do something virtuous like read a book or play a game with the kids or something. But I fought the heat and the heat won. I ended up collapsing into the couch after supper, and after aimlessly drifting around Netflix on my laptop for a few minutes, I settled on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I had seen a previous film of his (2008’s Biutiful) and I had a vague sense that Birdman had won a bunch of awards. Plus, all that aimless drifting around Netflix was getting tiring in the heat.
The rough outline of the film’s plot is quite simple, if the filming is unique (most of it appears as if filmed in a single shot—kind of one, long scene, with few breaks or musical interludes or any of the other things we’re conditioned to expect in films). Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a fading Hollywood star trying desperately to breathe life into his sagging career by directing and acting in a Broadway show. Once upon a time, he was an action star in big budget blockbusters. He was the Birdman! Now, he’s older and poorer, divorced, and struggling to maintain a relationship with a daughter/assistant fresh out of rehab. He’s the classic washed up actor whose fifteen minutes of fame have been wrung dry, who’s tormented by the man he once was (or the man the public once told him he was) and the man he is now, who’s playing his proverbial last card.
I won’t spoil the plot for those who haven’t seen it (and, fair warning, it’s rated R, so some might not even want to see it). Suffice to say that there is tragedy (the spectacle of a middle-aged, saggy Birdman stumbling through Times Square in his underwear after locking himself out of the theatre while stealing a quick mid-show cigarette and ripping his robe that got caught in the door comes to mind), comedy (some priceless quotes about a vapid culture that equates “going viral” with success, and other zingers like: “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige”), and even a few hints of redemption (although they remain only hints) in how the story plays out.
But through it all, the question looms: What gives a human life value? Riggan Thomson is terrified that he is becoming, will become nothing. At one point, he’s standing on the Broadway stage, staring out at the expectant crowd, and he mouths the words: “I’m nothing. I’m not even here.” There is nothing that we human beings want more than to matter. We need to believe that our lives are not gradually, inexorably being consigned to unremembered oblivion. We desperately hope that our value is not tied to a baseline level of accomplishment, recognition, popularity, adoration. This has probably always been so, but it seems to me that the Internet age has given these anxieties a decidedly unwelcome boost. We’re constantly selling ourselves, our experiences, our opinions to the world, to our friends, to the public, to ourselves. It’s not at all difficult to read these sales jobs as a frantic chasing after this most basic of human needs. We long to know that our lives have value, that we matter.
The next question, of course, is who or what is it that can confer value? Is the value of each human life a shared fiction that we rehearse to one another to make life more palatable, even as we would all, if pressed, agree that we are just one more creature thrown up from the impersonal clay? We daily marinate in a cultural ethos that tells us that everyone is special because they exist. But we rarely dig around in the broad meta-narratives we embrace (explicitly or implicitly) to see if the “specialness” and “value” of a human life are derivable therein. If we’re just another mammal occupying a few decades of cosmic time on a chunk of rock chugging along toward nothingness, then it’s hard to imagine how or why we might matter in the ways that are so desperate to do so.
But if, as the Christian narrative loudly insists, human beings are the very image of God, then we have a few more helpful categories through which to interpret both our hunger for meaning and value, and our sense that each human life is, in fact, special. We also have the deep and necessary hope that seemed to elude Riggan Thomson for most of Birdman—the desperate hope that his value as a human being was not tied to the fickle verdicts of the spectacle-hungry crowd, that it was not, in fact, something that had to be earned at all. That he would not be rejected, rendered “irrelevant,” and forgotten.
Christians have a word for this hope, a theological category within which to locate it. The word is “love.” And it comes from God. Actually, as 1 John 4 reminds us, it describes God’s very identity and nature. Love is what makes life meaningful. Love is what makes a human life matter, long after less worthy verdicts have been rendered, long after human lives have been deemed no longer fit for public consumption.
The God who is love says—to washed up actors and to all the rest of us: “You are not nothing. Even when it feels like it, even when the impossible standards of a deeply confused culture inevitably go unmet. No, you are not nothing. Not at all. You are loved.”