Reel Life: Using Film, Myth, and yes…The Beatles…to Promote Compassionate Living
I love movies.
In my undergraduate years, I may have logged more time in the student movie theater than I did attending classes. Although my schedule now doesn’t afford me the luxury of getting to the theater as much as I would like, I still try to “watch my stories” as much as I can. A good film offers an immersive experience…a chance to be absorbed in the present moment via our senses (sight and hearing especially…but then again there’s always popcorn to fill in the rest), but beyond mere escapism, the medium can offer us an opportunity to connect with our uniquely human capacity for meaning making.
The other night, I was scrolling through my Netflix queue, looking for something to watch at home, and I came across the 2014 Spanish film Living is Easy (with Eyes Closed). I had never heard of the film, but was immediately intrigued by its title—a reference to the opening verse in the Beatles’ song “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which just happens to be one of my favorite songs ever (more on that in a bit).
Anyway, I watched the film and loved it. The film, apparently something of a true story, chronicles a teacher’s journey to meet John Lennon in 1966, when he was in Spain filming the Richard Lester movie How I Won the War (notable in Beatle lore for being the period when John wrote “Strawberry Fields Forever”). The teacher, Antonio, records Beatles’ tunes off the radio and then translates them to teach his students English. He wants to ask the “Smart Beatle” to translate and clarify the meaning of some of the songs, because it’s hard for Antonio to get all the words right to teach his students.
Along Antonio’s journey, he picks up two teenagers who are hitchhiking, fleeing two separate but simultaneously unfortunate circumstances. The unlikely trio journey from Madrid to the coastal town of Almeria, where John Lennon is temporarily residing. The film is filled with picturesque views of the Spanish countryside and coast, but underneath the beauty lurks subtle and not-so-subtle reminders of the oppressive environment that existed in Spain under the rule of Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975.
You might be wondering why I’m talking about movies in a blog dedicated to a psychotherapy practice. Well, I’ll explain. Actually, I’ll let twentieth century American existential psychologist Rollo May explain instead…
In his 1991 book “The Cry for Myth,“ Rollo May notes that “a myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence” (p. 15). May emphasizes that, throughout time and across cultures, myths have served to aid humanity in formulating personal identity, connection with others, clarifying values, and providing meaning to the otherwise unexplainable.
Film is a modern means to access this mythic tradition.
When the topic of movies comes up in my sessions, I tend to steer the conversation toward connecting film with its mythical tradition. For example, we can use film narratives and film characters’ struggles as a means to externalize problems, so those issues that bring us into therapy seem less threatening. Or…maybe we can gain a new, more helpful perspective on a difficult past experience by considering it part of our “origin story”—an event that we have no control over apart from the meaning we derive from it…e.g. the murder of Batman’s parents contributing to his decision to protect the citizens of Gotham City.
I noted a lot of mythic elements in my viewing of Living Is Easy (With Eyes Closed). In one of the film’s opening scenes, Antonio teaches his class the words to “Help!”—another iconic Beatles’ tune. Antonio asks his students what the song is about, and after weathering a few non-committal answers from his disinterested pupils, he conveys to his students that the songwriter—once again…Mr. Lennon—is imploring us to help. He emphasizes the word “help” multiple times, and in doing so extends the meaning beyond a literal interpretation of the song’s lyrics.
To my mind, Antonio is suggesting we consider the song’s meaning from more than one perspective. The way he says “HELP,’ almost as an incantation, suggests fear…the terror of existence, but it can also be read as a command—not to live in fear but to offer HELP to humanity in general. The song’s seemingly simple message blooms into a mythic call for empathy and compassionate action.
Time and time again in this film, you see characters helping each other in tiny…and sometimes very significant ways, their kindness standing in stark contrast to the occasional random acts of cruelty a few peripheral characters exhibit (a thug in the town of Almeria seems to symbolize the dumb hate that fuels Fascist regimes like Franco’s). It’s almost as if the viewer is being presented with a choice—to live compassionately or live as an oppressor of others.
This emphasis on helping, to live compassionately, makes the film’s borrowing of the “Strawberry Fields Forever” lyric ironic. I’ve always found “Strawberry Fields Forever” to be a beautiful, atmospheric song, but lyrically the song is extraordinarily bleak—something of a sad, fragmented ode to nostalgia and escapism.
Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It’s getting hard to be someone
But it all works out
It doesn’t matter much to me…
The protagonist in the song (once again, is it John Lennon?) seems confused and uncertain of their identity and sense of purpose…always second-guessing themselves (“always, no sometimes, think it’s me…but it’s all wrong, that is I think I disagree”). The solace found in escaping (“let me take you down”) to Strawberry Fields might suggest permanence (the “Forever” bit), but I hear/read it as a temporary respite—a fleeting act of emotional avoidance—confirmed by the increasingly nonsensical tone of each subsequent verse.
Antonio does not live a life of avoidance, of the escapism of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Sure…there is struggle along the way, and there appears to be something of a loneliness to his existence (“take me…all heart and lonelier than a fart”), but he possesses a secure identity and engages open-heartedly in vital, valued living that is rich in compassion (that desire to HELP that I mentioned earlier). In one of the film’s key moments, when Antonio confronts the town bully who has been terrorizing one of his teenage traveling companions, he provides this challenge:
“let me say something…really important. You can’t live in fear. Too many people live in fear in Spain. But you need to change things dammit…you need to erase fear. Life is like a dog…if it smells fear, it bites you…”
Although he is speaking of fear that permeates 1960’s Spain, he could just as easily be referring to the present day United States. We can live a “half life” compromised by fear, or we can learn accept fear, and move forward in our lives in directions that matter to us.
I’m so happy I stumbled across Antonio, as he’s stimulated a lot of reflection on my part, connecting me to some of the key elements that energize me in my work with clients.
I love engaging clients in dialogues—should they be willing to do so—that are designed to inspire meaning making and clarify values. If we don’t know what is important to us, we run the risk of pursuing false, unfulfilling goals and living a life that will leave us disengaged from others and ultimately dissatisfied (i.e. the non-Antonio existence). Additionally, much of my practice, as I’ve delineated in some of my other blog posts, is informed by Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), an empirically-proven, mindfulness-based psychotherapy that encourages the cultivation of a compassionate mind as an essential piece in promoting psychological change and well-being. When we have the courage to recognize suffering, whether our own or someone else’s, and connect with our innate capacity to HELP (once again, thanks Antonio)—to alleviate suffering through compassionate action—we access the best, most vital part of ourselves.
Hope you enjoyed the “Long and Winding Road” (another Beatles’ reference…a hat trick!) that is this blog post. If any of the content here around film and its use in psychotherapy, compassionate mind training, or…well…the Fab Four engaged you, feel free to contact me. I’m accepting new clients! Also, if you’re just looking for a good movie to watch tonight, and you don’t mind subtitles, check out Living is Easy (With Eyes Closed).
May, Rollo (1991). The Cry for Myth. New York: Norton.