Talking to a school administrator the other day about the challenges my children and I have been facing in the last year, I had one of those experiences where you get a look at your own life through someone else’s eyes. “Wow, you have really been on a difficult journey,” he said. I just nodded in response. Financial difficulties, health problems, dealing with depression… life has been tough. But you get through things like that by being centered. Meditation tricks. Things you can do to smooth out the wrinkles and keep moving forward.
I always return in the theater of my mind to a moment in childhood where I learned a critical lesson. My life has been one of learning how to build rather than destroy. It has been about creating, not criticizing.
When I was a boy, I was a serious butterfly hunter. It started when Uncle Don gave me a dead cecropia moth that he had found in the Rowan grain elevator. It was big and beautiful and perfectly preserved. Shortly thereafter, I located another cecropia in the garage behind the house, a building that had once been a wagon shed complete with horse stalls and a hay loft. I tried to catch it with my bare hands. And by the time I had hold of it, the powder on its wings was mostly gone. The wings were broken in a couple of places, and the poor bug was ruined in terms of starting a butterfly collection.
Undeterred by tragedy, I got books about butterfly collecting at the Rowan Public Library and began teaching myself how to bug hunt. I learned where to find them, and how to net them, and how to kill and mount them.
I discovered that my grandfather’s horse pasture had thistle patches which were natural feeding grounds for red admiral butterflies (pictured top left) and painted lady butterflies (top right). But if you wanted to catch the rarer mourning cloak butterfly (bottom picture), you had to stake out apple trees, particularly at apple blossom time, though I caught one on the ripening apples too.
But my greatest challenge as a butterfly hunter was the tiger swallowtail butterfly. They are rare. They are tricky. And one summer I dueled with one, trying with all my might to catch him. He was in my own back yard the first time I saw him. I ran to get the butterfly net, and by the time I got back, he was flitting high in the trees out of reach. I must’ve watched him for half an hour before I finally lost sight of him. About five other times I had encounters with him in the yard or in the neighborhood. I learned the hard way that some butterflies are acrobatic flyers and can actually maneuver to avoid being caught. He frustrated me.
The tiger swallowtail was the butterfly that completed my collection, and it was finished when one of my cousins caught one and gave it to me because she knew I collected them.
But then, one day, while I was sitting on a blanket under a maple tree in the back yard with my notebooks open, writing something that I no longer even recall what I wrote, the backyard tiger swallowtail visited me again. In fact, he landed on the back of my hand. I dropped the pencil I was writing with, and slowly, carefully, I turned my hand over underneath him so that he was sitting on my palm.
I could’ve easily closed my hand upon him and captured him. But I learned the lesson long before from the cecropia that catching a butterfly by hand would destroy its delicate beauty. I would knock all the yellow and black powder off his exquisite wings. I could not catch him. But I could close my hand and crush him. I would be victorious after a summer-long losing battle.
But that moment brought an end to my butterfly hunting. I let him flutter away with the August breeze. I did not crush the butterfly. It was then that I realized what beauty there was in the world, and how fragile that beauty could be. I could not keep it alive forever. But it lasted a little big longer because I chose to let it.
So, here is the lesson that keeps me whole. Even though I had the power, I did not crush the butterfly.
Why Do You Think That? (Part Two)
In my short, sweet sixty years of life, I have probably seen more than my share of movies. I have seen classic movies, black-and-white movies, cartoon movies, Humphrey Bogart movies, epic movies, science fiction movies, PeeWee Herman movies, Disney movies, Oscar-winning movies, and endless box-office stinkers. But in all of that, one of the most undeniable threads of all is that movies make me cry. In fact they make me cry so often it is a miracle that even a drop of moisture remains in my body. I should be a dried-out husk by now.
I wept horribly during this scene. Did you?
And the thing is, people make fun of you when you cry at movies. Especially cartoon movies like Scooby Doo on Zombie Island. (But I claim I was laughing so hard it brought tears to my eyes. That’s the truth, dear sister. So stop laughing at me.) But I would like to put forth another “Why do you think that?” notion. People who cry while watching a movie are stronger and more powerful than the people who laugh at them for crying. A self-serving thesis if ever there was one.
Movies can make you cry if you have the ability to feel empathy. We all know this. Old Yeller is the story of a dog who endears himself to a prairie farm family, saves Travis’s life at one point, and then gets infected with rabies and has to be put down. Dang! No dry eyes at the end of that one. Because everyone has encountered a dog and loyal dog-love somewhere along the line. And a ten-year-old dog is an old dog. The dogs you knew as a child helped you deal with mortality because invariably, no matter how much you loved them, dogs demonstrate what it means to die. Trixie and Scamper were both hit by cars. Queenie, Grampa’s collie, died of old age. Jiggs the Boston Terrier died of heat stroke one summer. You remember the pain of loss, and the story brings it all back.
Only psychopaths don’t feel empathy to some degree. Think about how you would feel if you were watching Old Yeller and somebody you were watching with started laughing when Travis pulls the trigger on the shotgun. Now, there’s a Stephen King sort of character.
But I think I can defend having lots of empathy as a reason for crying a river of tears during Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. You see, identifying with Quasimodo as the main character, hoping for what he hopes for, feeling like a monster and completely unloved, and fearing what he fears connect you to the story in ways that completely immerses you in the experience. This is basically a monster movie.
But the film puts you inside the head of the malformed man, and you realize that he is not the monster. Righteous Judge Frollo and the people who mistreat Quasimodo for his deformity of outward appearance are the real monsters. If you don’t cry a river of tears because of this story, then you have not learned the essential truth of Quasimodo. When we judge others harshly, we are really judging ourselves. In order to stop being monstrous, and be truly human, you must look inside the ugliness as Esmeralda does to see the heroic beauty inside others. Sometimes the ideas themselves are so powerful they make me weep. That’s when my sister and my wife look at me and shake their heads because tears are shooting out of me like a fountain, raining wetness two or three seats in every direction. But I believe I am a wiser man, a more resolved man, and ultimately a better man because I was not afraid to let a movie make me cry.
The music also helps to tell the story in ways that move my very soul to tears. Notice how the heroine walks the opposite way to the rest of the crowd. As they sing of what they desire, what they ask God to grant, she asks for nothing for herself. She shows empathy in every verse, asking only for help for others. And she alone walks to the light from the stained glass window. She alone is talking to God.
Yes, I am not embarrassed by the fact that movies make me cry. In fact, I should probably be proud that movies and stories and connections to other people, which they bring me, makes me feel it so deeply I cry. Maybe I am a sissy and a wimp. Maybe I deserved to be laughed at all those times for crying during the movie. But, hey, I’ll take the laughter. I am not above it. I am trying to be a humorist after all.
Filed under cartoon review, commentary, compassion, Disney, humor, insight, inspiration, movie review, music, philosophy, strange and wonderful ideas about life
Tagged as empathy, movies that make me cry, Old Yeller, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Toy Story 3