I’m going to get there early. Why? Middle seats, time for popcorn, and watching the 20 minutes of trailers that come standard with films these days. When the 12 studio logos roll by, along with the parent film company logo, the suspense is almost more than I can take. I fall – immersed into the film experience. I never went to films when I was young, so that experience of a dark room where someone else could actually share a vision of the way they imagine a story, uninterrupted by the knock at the door, by the call to supper, or by the insistence on bed time, was a new and concentrated experience when I first went to a film at age 19. It was like I had given someone permission to share with me their personal window on the world in a very intimate way.
As a boy, I spent hours listening to The Bible in Living Sound, an Adventist audio drama production. Once again, I seemed to slip into an introspective creative space where the stories came to life as if I was actually in Judea, seeing Jesus walk on water, heal the blind, and cast out demons. I used my stuffed toys to play out the drama on my berber carpet floor. I played those tapes until every last one was eaten by my tape deck.
When I was just over 11, my dad took my brother out in his car in order to show him how to drive. He was approaching 15, and the back hills in central Oregon proved a worthy simulation for any hazard one might encounter on the populated roadways. Slick patches of ice, random dear running out in front of the car, pot holes – all proved useful in developing good driving skills. I insisted that I learn how to drive at the same time as my brother, though he would get his permit in several months, while I would get mine in several years. This started a tradition at our house. Friday night, after worships, or sometimes Sabbath afternoons, my dad would take us out and let us drive on the dirt roads. Once again, I found this to be an exhilarating immersive experience. We didn’t listen to the radio, but rather we talked, and my brother and I drove. We drove for miles on end – sharing both the washboard of the road, and the rhythmic sounds of our voices as we had a connected conversation with our dad.
One Sabbath morning at Walla Walla College, I rolled out of bed and jumped in the Toyota Tercel that I learned to drive in back when I was 11 years old. I decided I would not listen to the radio, but rather I would simply try to get lost. I would drive out on a road until I found a road which I did not recognize, then I would drive down that road, turning randomly, to see how lost I could get. I drove all morning long. I found myself alone with my thoughts, and once again I fell into that singular kind of immersive experience. It turns out that it is nearly impossible to get lost in the Walla Walla Valley. It would seem that all roads lead to the Walla Walla Community College, for whatever reason.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve found it harder to get into those immersive experiences. I slip into mindless Google browsing rather easily. I might watch a T.V. show as a sound accompaniment to my teacher’s tasks. I don’t read as many books as I would like. I read articles. I listen to NPR. I like a good film as much as the next guy. The problem is that sometimes I feel like my own distraction gets in the way of good films. When I go to a theater and see a film, I come away feeling exhilarated, but at home, where I have the convenience of Netflix, I have no commitment to watch an entire film, so all of the sudden, nothing seems all that interesting on the biggest collection of professionally produced material on the planet. It’s funny how an experience like The Lion King brought me close to tears when I was young, but in the comfort of my own home, it seems drab and uninteresting.
But then… Then I decide to turn out the lights. I mute my phone. I put away my computer. I settle in a comfortable place on my couch. I make popcorn. I decide to give that story another chance. Sure enough. The emotive power rises again. It isn’t the film that has gotten more drab, my mindset has become more hurried, more distracted. Good stories are about the most sacred of tasks, developing relationships. It is no surprise then, that, when deprived of attentiveness, the magic of film disappears. This is not to say that every film does its part if only we show up attentive. I remember going to see The Santa Clause 3 in theaters. We had to leave the theater. It was embarrassing to watch such a pathetic story struggle along.
There is something to the fact, though, that meaningful relationships require presence and undivided attention. This is something that I’m finding more of a struggle to commit to as I become more “connected” to different forms of social media.
And now for the mirror… I look at myself and I find someone who needs to work on the art of mindfulness. I need to shut out the noise, to empty myself. It might sound as if this harkens to far-eastern religions, but I find it significant that when Elijah was in the hustle and bustle of Israel, he got distracted from his connection with the Kingdom. He focused too much on the earthly king, and not enough on the one beyond the world. When he went out and emptied the noise, then he heard the still small voice.
So my challenge to myself is simple: I must take time to seek mindfulness. I must set up boundaries and barriers against the call of life, for life will happen with or without me, but I cannot happen without the connection to the story that has all the meaning in the world to me.
It’s time to not just see a film, but to watch it.