I was finishing the last of Thanksgiving dinner clean-up when I called my grandmother. She lives two hours away, and after a busy day I had to get in my holiday call before I started working on the praline topping for dessert. We chatted, me speaking slowly and loudly so her 96-year-old ears could hear, exchanging updates about anything new in our lives.
“Nothing new here,” she reported. “Nobody in the neighborhood has died.”
“Nothing new here either,” I reported back. No deaths in my neighborhood either.
She started talking about her walker, how important it was, indispensable to her ability to move around independently.
“You should name it,” I quipped. “Like the character in that movie Cast Away. Remember that ball he named?”
“I remember that story. People would think I’m crazy,” she said. “Although sometimes I do talk to it!”
Later, my daughter, who had been hovering nearby while I was on the phone, asked me what I was talking about. “What ball? Somebody named a ball?”
I tried to explain, but it made no sense to her, so after the dessert was eaten and the youngest kid had fallen asleep into a holiday coma, the rest of us settled in for a fire and a movie to complete the rest of our Thanksgiving. Cast Away with Tom Hanks.
I was 18-years-old when Cast Away came out. Just a baby. I remember seeing it and thinking, that’s cool. The dude survives. Next?
But watching it now, with my children, with my life experiences, it felt like seeing a different movie.
In the movie, Chuck survives a plane crash and washes up on a desolate island. To survive, he is focused on the basics: finding potable water, something to eat, a dry place to sleep, just the very basics of staying alive on a rock in the middle of the ocean. In his previous life, he frequently traveled as a systems analyst for FedEx. He was obsessed with time, enjoyed a busy career making the company more efficient, and was in love with his long-term girlfriend named Kelly who he was ready to marry. This is all very ironic considering he is about to spend four years in a place where he has all the time in the world, by himself, where his only need for efficiency involves how to catch his food for the day.
Against all odds, Chuck survived through trial and error. He developed coping skills, like befriending a volleyball who he named Wilson, and keeping a picture of his girlfriend in a pocket watch nearby at all times. He also managed to find objects that washed up over time, including FedEx packages from the plane crash. He opened all but one, and that one would become important to the story later because of his determination to return it to the sender.
Chuck returned home, but not to the happy ending he was expecting. Kelly had moved on during his absence. Thinking he was dead, she married a nice man and had a daughter with him. Chuck was crushed. First Wilson, and now Kelly. He literally motivated himself to stay alive on a rock for years just to come home to his soulmate, but she was now committed to a different family. It reminded me that sometimes in life, circumstances beyond our control prevent us from having what we want. It wasn’t Chuck’s fault. It wasn’t Kelly’s fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, and yet they still weren’t going to be together.
When I first watched the movie as a young woman, the volleyball, Wilson, seemed like a central part of the plot. It’s what I referenced on the phone call with my grandma. That scene when Chuck loses Wilson near the end, when the volleyball drifted away from the tattered raft, really invokes a lot of sympathy from us. We can feel Chuck’s pain. It’s like losing your favorite childhood toy. This time around, I was more aware of the way Chuck pondered going after Wilson, debating whether to try to swim and save it, but ultimately letting it go. Letting it go because he harbored a stronger hope that if he stuck to that raft, he would get saved, he would live, and he would have a brighter future. I think we can all relate to something we loved dearly and having to let it go, knowing that it was ultimately the best thing to do. But it still hurts. Chuck was devastated. Since this scene is so moving, I used to believe Wilson was an important part of the plot, but now I would argue the unopened package was the symbolic theme of the movie. Even more important than the picture of Kelly that he kept around his neck.
Toward the end, Chuck reflected with his friend and said, “So now I know what I have to do. I have to keep breathing. And tomorrow the sun will rise, and who knows what the tide will bring in.”
That little nugget– that fleeting moment at the very end– encapsulates so much of what the movie can represent for the rest of us. That line was the unopened package.
Chuck survived a plane crash, 4+ years on an island, almost died on a raft at sea, and finally against all odds came back home only to lose his girlfriend a second time. Those are significant blows for a human to endure.
Yet, everything he went through on that island, the mundane tasks he did each day just to see another sunrise– would forever change him. It made him the kind of man who could weather whatever life threw at him.
When life gets tough, we have heard to “just breathe” before. But what does that really mean? Just breathe, and everything will get better? Just breathe and I’ll forget that the world is collapsing all around me?
It means putting one foot in front of the other. When things are particularly rough, it means going back to the basics, knowing that you have everything you need inside of you to survive.
Chuck began the movie as a workaholic, overweight, high-strung man. He wasn’t unhappy. He wasn’t particularly angry or rude. He seemed to be enjoying what he did. Yet, there was an edge about him. You sensed something brewing beneath the surface– a lifestyle and pace that could not be sustained. On that island, he had to both slow down and simultaneously learn how to hustle in a different way. The kind of hustling that forces a person to devote all of their attention to their basic needs. That kind of attention would cultivate Chuck’s ability to stay present in a moment. It made him a more mindful person.
After he was rescued, Chuck came home with a ripped body. He emerged with a gentle demeanor, more resilience, and a kinder spirit. He wasn’t anxious. He wasn’t racing from place to place. Life had slowed down for him. He seemed connected to the earth, even though he lived disconnected from society for so many years. Even when he discovered that he lost Kelly forever– despite feeling sorrow– there wasn’t any rage inside of him. He was not angry. He showed her empathy. He understood that she could not abandon her family. Chuck told his friend that while he felt very sad, he also felt lucky that he had Kelly with him on that island. He experienced deep gratitude when others would probably express outrage and wallow in self-pity.
I asked my 7-year-old daughter if she thought Chuck was happy at the end of the movie.
“Yes,” she said.
“Even though he was stuck on the island?”
“Even though he had to pull out one of his own teeth?”
“Even though he lost Kelly forever?”
“Yes,” she said, sure.
I smiled. That’s what we all want, right? To be happy despite it all.
The movie ends how it begins: with a package marked with angel wings in rural Texas. This time, it is Chuck bringing the package to the owner of the ranch, a woman who is an artist known for the angel wings design. This was the unopened package– the one the tide brought in. The one Chuck kept unopened, and the one that survived the dangerous journey on the raft. This package was, in my opinion, the Easter egg in the movie. He could have opened the package– like he did with the others– but he didn’t. He deliberately kept it unopened, determined to return it. This unopened package gave his life meaning, even though he had no idea what was inside of it. When Chuck discovered that the owner was not home, he left the package with a note, thanking her because he said it saved his life.
Down the road, Chuck got out of his car at a rural intersection and we see him looking at his map, taking a sip of his water, trying to figure out where he is going next. It seems unlike him, but he is calm and steady. At this point we can deduce that he has declined to return to his busy career with FedEx, opting instead for something new. He doesn’t quite seem sad, but perhaps curious, and not in a rush to go anywhere in particular. This is when the artist sees him on her way home. She gives him some directions, and there is chemistry in their brief interaction. She drives off, and that is when he notices the familiar angel wings on the back of her truck. He smiles, and we get the sense that he will turn around and go back to her ranch to talk to her. Possibly she will be the soulmate he was actually waiting for during all of those years on the island. Chuck doesn’t know at that point. We don’t know either, but the symbolism is poignant. In our pain and suffering, there is strength and wisdom we can glean by taking life one breath at a time, watching one sunrise at a time, putting one foot in front of the other as we slowly climb our way out of our darkest days. We do this knowing that in these simplest of acts, there is joy. Joy in not going hungry. Joy in getting to sleep in a dry bed. Joy in growing another year older. There is bigger joy too– joy we can not fully imagine. Joy that has not materialized yet. Joy around the corner. The kind of joy that holds all of our dreams come true. Joy we can only understand when we tether our faith to it.
In life, there is an ebb and flow. A tide that comes and goes, just like our pain and suffering, and just like our happiness and joy. If we can keep ourselves upright and able to gaze out into the vast ocean of opportunities, we can catch the treasures that come our way. It may not always be what we asked for or what we thought we wanted or needed, but the vastness convinces us that there is no possible way to begin to know what we want. We just have to want to be here to experience it all.
I am reminded of the times I went through painful days and weeks and years, thinking it would never end. Sometimes I’m not even sure they have ended. Those early days with three young children and a dead husband, not knowing how I could possibly do it all on my own. Not knowing if I could ever feel happiness again. In the middle of a pandemic, I don’t know how many days of quarantine I can take. How many days of isolation, wondering when I will sit in a restaurant again. Wondering when I will socialize with adults and be able to go to church again. Sometimes I think we get too bogged down thinking about the future. The uncertainty can paralyze us. Yet, in overwhelming circumstances, maybe all we need to do is survive the best we can today. Do what we can today. Just today. There will be another sunrise to try again tomorrow. One foot in front of the other. We just keep doing that until the tide brings us our next opportunity.