by Joanie Butman
Years ago under intense peer pressure, I read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I was assured I would love it and not be disappointed. There are plenty of words to describe my opinion of it, but none of them would be love. Not only did I find it laborious, I couldn’t grasp the deeper meaning that everyone claimed yet couldn’t explain. The more I questioned people, the more vague they became about exactly what that deeper meaning was. I chalked it up to one of those Emperor’s New Clothes phenoms. Everyone could see it but me – kind of like when I was in math class trying to understand the mathematical meaning of pi. Never got that either. Given the abstract nature of the movie, perhaps that’s why the author chose the name.
So you can understand why ten years later I wasn’t enthusiastic about seeing Ang Lee’s version of the book. However, once the Academy determined it was prize worthy, my curiosity got the better of me. Again I caved to the majority hoping the movie would do a better job of helping me understand the story’s deeper meaning. It did not, though the cinematography was amazing. I knew it was supposed to be about God, but I wasn’t seeing it, which is odd for someone whose children always claim, “You think everything’s about God.” To which I always respond, “Isn’t it?”
With the internet at my disposal, I was determined to discover someone who would enlighten me. I found a lot of someones. There was a glut of people more than willing to share their interpretation—some thought-provoking, others ran the gamut from condescending to critical to arrogant and everything in between. I found so much information it was difficult to sift through it all. Rather than satisfying my quest for an explanation, it offered so many versions that the movie haunted me even more as I began to ponder it from a new perspective.
Despite my newfound knowledge, it was the experience of a friend that transformed the story into Technicolor better than Ang Lee. I will give you the abbreviated version. As with Pi’s story, there is so much more to it, but it’s not my story to tell. My friend lost her sight in one eye two years ago. She was told she would never see out of that eye again from the numerous experts she consulted. All her medical records confirm their findings. This past December she lost sight in the other eye. You can imagine the terror of facing the possibility of total blindness. To make a long story short, after being immobilized in the dark for six weeks and hearing the devastating news that the ‘good’ eye was not healing properly, the sight in her bad eye was miraculously restored to 20/25 vision. Her other eye is still healing from surgery, so whether or not her sight will be restored in that eye remains to be seen, but I’d be shocked if it wasn’t.
When she shared the astounding details with me, she expressed how hesitant she was to make it public because people wouldn’t believe it. She explained how a few of the people she had confided in tried to explain it away creating their own version of what happened. Initially, even she was questioning what had happened. As I sat and listened to her, I realized she was saying exactly the same thing as Pi at the end of his story.
Here is what I’ve determined. The meaning of the book, the movie AND life all boil down to Martel’s question, “Which story do you prefer?” Of course the author and the director leave it open-ended – because each of us has to answer that question for ourselves. Life of Pi is fiction so your choice of which version of his story you prefer is relevant only as a foil to evoke a deeper spiritual consideration about how you choose to live your life.
Do you choose to live by faith or by sight? Do you choose to believe in the unbelievable/miracles or do you need to see and have an explanation for everything? Do you rely on a higher power for strength or are you a survivor who relies on your own strength and determination in facing adversity? Perhaps, like most of us, you are a little of both with your dual natures locked in an ongoing internal battle as each one clamors for dominance. Letting go of control is a difficult pill for many to swallow.
The genius of Martel and Lee’s Life of Pi is that it simply offers an opportunity for introspection, for looking deeper into your own story. By asking questions, relentlessly seeking answers and digging deeper, I now recognize so many analogies to my own faith journey – including how long it took me to find the meaning. We aren’t adrift in a boat in the middle of the ocean, but who hasn’t experienced seasons of feeling adrift or even shipwrecked when we come face-to-face with the same struggles of complete surrender, anger, self-control (taming the beast within), doubt, fear, loneliness, isolation, trust, illness, hunger, exhaustion and finally, utter despair. They are universal themes we all wrestle with eventually. Like my girlfriend, I see it so clearly now.
In retrospect, I’m not surprised I didn’t understand the book ten years ago. How could I? I was still at the beginning of my own faith journey with lots to learn and just enough hardships ahead to help me along the way. I hadn’t found God yet in my own life, so of course I wouldn’t be able to recognize Him in Pi’s. In my quest for explanations, I was reminiscent of Dorothy in Oz asking everyone else to tell her how to get back to Kansas. At the end of The Wizard of Oz, the good witch’s response to Dorothy's query as to why she didn’t tell her how to get home sooner resonates with truth and wisdom regarding any spiritual journey and discovery. She explains, “Because you wouldn't have believed me. You had to learn it for yourself.” That’s all a spiritual journey is – finding your way home. And so I did, and so I did.
If the value of the arts is to make you think, no wonder Life of Pi received so many accolades. I can finally agree with all those who insisted ten years ago that I wouldn’t be disappointed – far from it. And to steal Martel’s words, “…and so it is with God.” It is through seeking answers that He will be revealed to you, and you won’t be disappointed either. When your eyes are opened to view life from an eternal perspective, suddenly your focus sharpens and shifts from what is seen to what is unseen. That is the birth of faith and the beginning of your own incredible adventure story – but not without mishaps. The way you choose to respond to them, however, makes all the difference.
While I am more curious to hear about your answers and your understanding of Life of Pi, I will close with Albert Einstein’s understanding of the choice Martel presents.
Which do you choose?