Last weekend Thom and I snuck away to the movies. We haven’t gone much these days because most don’t seem to deliver a story worth watching. Fortunately The Life of Pi had just been released. Not only is the movie a stunning visual treat, the story is engaging and thought-provoking. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly encourage you to take the time. And as fantastical as the story may seem, you may find as I did, that the movie is a good allegory for all of us. In fact, many of the choices made by Pi are choices most of us are asked to make as we journey through our lives.
Note: If you are concerned about learning too much about the story beforehand, you may want to wait to read the rest of this post until after you see the movie.
So what are some of the themes that I found very universal? The movie trailer makes the story sound a bit like Robinson Caruso meets Castaway. It says, “A 16 year-old Indian boy’s passage to a new life in Canada aboard a freighter ends in a shipwreck in the Pacific. He is left to fend for himself on a life raft with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena and a Bengal tiger.”
Sadly that description falls infinitely short. It also fails to alert you to the grandeur of seeing the movie in 3-D. And in case you’re wondering, Thom and I are not fans of 3-D. But after reading a handful of reviews online before going, we decided to take the chance. Having comfortably seen it that way, I urge you to also be willing to try the 3-D approach for two reasons. First, it is nothing like the cheesy 3-D many of us remember from long ago. Second, the visuals are so inspiringly gorgeous that you won’t want to miss the added gift provided by experiencing it in 3-D.
Thinking back over the movie I’ve decided that there were at least ten solid lessons in the movie that deserve attention. They are:
1. Stuff happens to all of us. If you’ve read the short synopsis above you know that something horrendous happens to Pi. Although he certainly expresses doubt, frustration and sadness as many of us do now and then, he realizes that, “You must take life the way it comes at you and make the best of it.” In other words, stuff happens to all of us and we each have the choice of letting it devastate us or choosing to make the best of it.
2. Pi learns early on that he “gets to make it up.” After constant teasing from other children about his given name of Piscine Molitor Patel, he creates a challenging and interesting approach to the mathematical equation (?) that invites everyone to then begin calling him by that new name. This is a great example of using our imagination and turning a negative into a positive in a creative way.
3. See the good but don’t tempt ferocious animals. Pi’s father owns and manages a zoo in India. As a child Pi relates to all the animals as pets. When the zoo purchases a large Bengal tiger he is eager to see it up close. With his brother by his side, he teases the tiger with raw meat and nearly loses his arm. His father then shows him a very vivid lesson about tigers that demonstrates that contained within a tiger’s beauty and majesty, is also a grim reality. A wild animal is a wild animal. Even when appreciating the good and the beauty in the world—if we stand in front of a Bengal tiger or argue with physical reality we may not survive the experience.
4. The true power of religion is the practical experience of faith in action. Pi is raised as a Hindu with hundreds of Gods. This allows Pi to explore both Christianity (Jesus) and Islam (Mohammad) from a perspective of unique attributes rather than worshipping one supreme ruler. Interestingly, I read several other reviews of the book/movie online and a number of other people took issue with Pi’s ability to practice such differing faiths. I think that’s because so many people who are raised under either Christianity or Islam have been taught that theirs is the only one and true religion. The freedom to explore the goodness in other religions allows a person to embrace the best within them without the need to protect or defend theirs against the other. Ultimately it is Pi’s deep faith in God (not a particular religion) that helps him face his challenges and survive.
5. Another simple way of looking at the difference between science and spirituality. Pi’s father prefers progress and science, rather than religious exploration. But it is his mother who simply states, “Science may explain everything out in the world, but spirituality explains everything within.”
6. Our challenges are often essential to our survival. During the story it becomes obvious that the constant struggle and tension created by the tiger in the lifeboat helped to keep Pi alive. What seemed to be the worst possible circumstance ended up saving his life. What if we all learned to embrace and work with those things that challenge us and learn to find the gift they contain?
7. A huge message in the movie is that we must never, ever give up hope. I kept wondering if I could have stayed optimistic if I had faced what Pi must face. The fact that Pi did is inspiring to everyone who hears the story.
8. Don’t let your comfort keep you from the great. At one point in the movie Pi lands on a deserted island that seems like Shangri-La. Only through a strange event does Pi and the Tiger escape the island, and eventually realize how that seduction nearly cost him everything. Far too often many of us settle for something that seems relatively favorable or comfortable. If we get lulled into staying there, we may never know the “great” waiting for us around the corner.
9. Most people refuse to believe what they can’t imagine. After Pi is rescued, he is interviewed by two Japanese officials who don’t believe that carnivorous trees and fish-eating algae exist. Pi responds, “Only because you’ve never seen them.” Like these officials, many of us don’t even know what we don’t know. Remember, no problem can ever be solved by the same consciousness that created it.
10. We all choose the story of our life, so why not choose the “better” story? Near the end of the movie, Pi narrates his amazing story of being stuck on a lifeboat over 30 days in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger to another author. When the author questions the reality of the story, Pi tells him an alternate tale that seems perhaps more real, but filled with violence and degeneracy. Then Pi says to the author, “Reality is a story and we can choose our story…so why not pick ‘the better story’?
While the movie doesn’t explore the idea of “picking a better story” to the depth of the book, it does hint at the important theme behind it. That idea is that as story-telling beings, we all have the ability to pick the story of our existence. And then, according to Pi, “…and so it goes with God.” As I mentioned above, The Life of Pi is filled with references to how Pi’s faith and trust in his concept of God gave him the courage and will to carry on in spite of the odds.
What if we all, like Pi, have the ability to pick both the story of our lives, and correspondingly the ability to pick the story of our God? Perhaps if we take the time, like Pi, to explore and come up with a concept of God that fits us individually, rather than blindly follow a ready-made version, we’ll find one that answers our needs when we are most challenged. It’s likely that how we decide to experience “God” (whether our own or someone else’s) will dramatically influence our life story and the choices, decisions and outcomes that flow out of it. Then instead of arguing about whether there is a God or not—we should ask ourselves, “what is the better story of God?”
A good story, like The Life of Pi is one where most people can imagine how they too would behave in similar circumstances. While few of us will face his challenges, we must all recognize that in order to live SMART 365 we are charged with creating a life that is sustainable, meaningful, artful, responsible and thankful. From there, why not pick the best story possible?