What can a movie teach us?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 14, 2011

So many people told me about “The Help.” It seemed everyone had watched the movie or read the book. When it worked out for me to see it with three of my closest friends, I was excited.

As I sat staring at the big screen seeing the story of black maids who worked in white households unfold, it was like walking back through the years, back to my adolescence. The places in the movie, the clothes, the music, even the hairstyles made it feel like being in the 1960s.

It was an emotionally-charged storyline filled with moments that made you laugh, made you angry, sad and deeply ashamed of what humans do to each other. When it ended, I sat for a moment not wanting to move, trying to digest the emotions I felt, trying to grasp what the movie left with me.

Later at home, the energy of the evening remained, wrapping me in a kind of melancholy blanket. I remembered living in the time in which the movie took place. I thought about the lady who worked for our neighbor, the one who was there so much she seemed like a member of their family. I recalled a time when a woman came to our house to help Mother with the ironing.

All of these images played in my head as I tried to understand exactly what I experienced in that dark theater. I knew there was something profound tapping on my heart begging for entrance.

As I did my best to find a place of stillness, words came into my head. It was a line from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a nearly 2000-year-old collection of observations on the nature of consciousness, one of the first texts to define yoga as a system of spiritual practice.

The line appears in part one and reads, “Memory is not allowing mental impressions to escape.” That was a good description of my experience. The movie flooded me with mental impressions that gave rise to all kinds of emotions.

And, in that moment, I realized holding on to memories is indeed a double-edged sword. While on the one hand they show us the errors of past actions, if we are not careful, they bring that same energy to life in the present.

Perhaps, if we are white people, seeing the movie’s images of injustice causes us to feel deep regret, sadness and shame. If your race is black, I think it would be difficult not to feel some anger and resentment mixed with the sorrow.

There, I think, is where the energy of the memory can creep into our present interactions if we are not aware of what is happening. Our feelings of shame or anger can separate us, which is what causes us to lose our human connection and perhaps replay the past in some way.

So, how do we acknowledge the errors and move beyond them to a place of deeper understanding? I think Pantanjali gave us the answer long ago. We must begin to release the mental impressions, allow them and any negative energy they carry to escape.

What we do not release are the lessons those experiences teach us. We must hold to the desire to be better people. We must choose to focus on our similarities rather than our differences.

We must move beyond our separated past into a unified future. We must learn to love each other.

That is what those who share their stories, as the women did in “The Help,” ask of us who hear them.