In times of stress - which, for me, is highly unusual as I tend to shrug off most potential stressors like a kid avoiding a bath - I have my totems. Totems are important, like rituals, in that they give us a sense of something to do when things are beyond your control.
I knew a guy once who, when things got a bit too much for him to handle, would go to the local arcade, get a 2-liter bottle of grape soda and play the Terminator pinball machine for hours. While I would never call him a 'zen guy,' he was always pretty calmed down after he came back. Another guy would get freaked out and go practice his scales on the piano (he was not a piano player) and the act put him at ease.
Me? When things start spiraling some and I can't shrug it off, I:
- take a nap
- do some heavy lifting at the gym
- smoke a cigarette (gotta be at least one vice in there...)
- write a blog post
- watch Terry Gilliam's "The Fisher King."
Ever since "The Fisher King" came out in 1991, it has held an amazing resonance for me. It's one of those rare films that speaks to exactly who I am in the moment I'm watching. Sometimes I'm Jack (Jeff Bridges), laid low by my own arrogance and in desperate need for redemption through helping someone achieve a ridiculous goal. Other times I'm Parry (Robin Williams), so damaged by events that I go into a self delusion and need someone to help me. I've been Anne (Mercedes Ruhl) a virtual giving tree to someone I love deeply who is wounded and broken and only knows how to take. I've deeply identified with Michael Jeter's Gypsy Rose Lee at times.
I've likely seen this movie over 100 times since it hit the theater. I've watched it on HBO, on VHS, on DVD, streaming, and my now iTunes copy. I know what the Red Knight looks like in my life and I understand that I can be the idiot who crawls up a wall to retrieve someone's Holy Grail.
It begins with the king as a boy, having to spend the night alone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. Now while he is spending the night alone he's visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the holy grail, symbol of God's divine grace. And a voice said to the boy, "You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of men." But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible, like God, so he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded. Now as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself. He couldn't love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die. One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple minded, he didn't see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, "What ails you friend?" The king replied, "I'm thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat". So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the holy grail, that which he sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, "How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?" And the fool replied, "I don't know. I only knew that you were thirsty."
"Sick with experience."
What a profound description of the emotional pain of getting older, of witnessing friends disappoint you, love weaken and die away, the illusion of karma giving way to the reality that bad people often win. Sick with experience.
This last time (last week) I was Jack. Definitely Jack. Blinded by my own comfortable hubris and confidence in myself that I did not see the fall coming. Granted, my fall was not even close to Jack's but that's the beauty of the film. I can find my circumstance in any character. This time around it was Jack.
Except I was also Parry. Being chased by a demon that wasn't actually there - tilting at a windmill that was, in fact, not a dragon but just a fucking windmill. Running, fighting, spitting and scratching at nothing more than the ravings and vitriol of a woman with pathologically low self esteem and a narcissistic literary midget who simply doesn't like me and decided to pounce when the opportunity arose. This time I was also Parry.
While I am Jack or Parry or the Wheelchair Bum played by Tom Waits, I am almost always The King of this fable (you know, because we all are the main character of the cinematic version of our lives.) There is always a wise fool who unwittingly hands me the Grail of Water that heals things over, creates the scars that indicate I survived. Who that fool is is anybody's guess. Often it's someone who loves me and whom I love but other times it's someone random who says something that I was thirsty for but didn't know I needed.
I don't get sick much - rarely do I get the flu or come down with a cold. Sick with experience? Once in awhile and "The Fisher King" is the perfect antidote.