“Don’t cry because it is over. Smile because it happened.”
Although the Academy Awards have come and gone, conversations about the Oscars spur me to view as many of the nominated films as I can. However, one of my favorite films last year, Collateral Beauty was not considered for any awards. I didn’t understand the horrible reviews and small audiences for a film with such a profound and deep message. I concluded after a year in which most media outlets devoted their time to trash, to the very base instincts of society, that people are addicted to fear, insults, fake news, and social media overload. Thus, I suspected that Collateral Beauty, a movie that contains no sex or an overabundance of violence (i.e., no kill count), seemed boring to many. Yet when I looked beyond the unrealistic storyline, I found some engaging dialogue and an overall message of love designed to speak to our souls and uplift our spirits.
What is collateral beauty you might ask? I had no idea how the concept was being framed for the movie, in fact I hadn’t thought about what it might mean until the end. I had heard of collateral damage, defined as the ”general term for deaths, injuries, or other damage inflicted on an unintended target.” In military terminology, it is frequently used to account for “the incidental killing or wounding of non-combatants…The unintentional destruction of friendly targets is called friendly fire.”
I’ve always felt, though, that collateral damage is a euphemism designed to distant or distract people from digesting the real death toll and destruction wreaked on the lives of “unintended targets” who find themselves in unwanted wars and physical conflicts. I wonder if people who engage in domestic violence in front of children, or gang members whose bullets miss the intended victim and instead kill or maim a child or elderly person, consider the long-term consequences of the damage they inflict. The deception of describing the loss of innocent life as incidental, just a person at the wrong place and at the wrong time, keeps us all from feeling the brunt of such news.
Given that definition, then, could collateral beauty denote? It is that stubborn new growth that occurs after a fire has destroyed a forest or a community of homes. Sometimes the new growth manifests as the loving actions of those who are moved by a tragedy to offer their help by making meals, bringing clothes, warm blankets, and water to fellow human beings who find themselves in a tragic situation. I find collateral beauty everywhere.
When I think of examples of collateral beauty in my life, my transplants and recovery from various illnesses immediately come to mind. My donor family lost a beloved daughter and sister and in the midst of their grief, they chose to donate a heart, liver, two kidneys, and some cornea that immediately brought new life to five people. One family’s heartbreaking loss became a joy and relief for another. And as I suffered through my recovery, friends, colleagues and new acquaintances emerged from their busy lives to offer prayer, food, company, and rides to and from the transplant clinic. Incredibly, six women from my former support group in Detroit each chose to take vacation time and travel by plane, train and bus to spend a week caring for me after my mother exhausted her unpaid family leave.
Collateral beauty frequently appears during the terminal illness of a loved one. Elizabeth Lesser writes about her experiences of donating bone marrow to her sister in the memoir, Marrow: A Love Story. Lesser describes the poignant healing that came as a result of conversations with her sister which resulted in their reconciliation after a lifetime of conflict. Sometimes collateral beauty appears in just those moments of presence, the baring of souls when people realize that their time together is limited and waning. In essence, collateral beauty is the love that emerges in the midst of devastation, whether it is in the loss of a loved one, destroyed homes, or a tragedy that affects an entire community.
In addition to introducing moviegoers to the notion of collateral beauty, the movie also elicited questions about how do we spend time, what love looks like in our lives, and what does life mean when one realizes their death is inevitable and possibly imminent? Recently I spent a week being present with my older brother who was visiting. We are both older and less physically vibrant than we were a few years ago. He suffers some effects of a stroke he experienced six years ago and I deal with chronic medical issues as a transplant recipient. We shared stories. I cooked for him and we reminisced about the events that bonded us for life. I knew that clearing the calendar and sharing this precious time with him was what love looks like and the best use of our time in the midst of our mutual physical suffering.
It takes time to see collateral beauty and frequently I don’t possess the patience to pause long enough. It requires looking beyond what I see with my eyes or hear with my ears. It allows a glimpse into the often unseen love that permeates all. Wherever there is seeming devastation, there is also collateral beauty—the healing, the joy of what has been, the celebration of a certain heavenliness on earth. If I stop for a moment to savor all of the beauty and goodness of life rather than focusing on what is missing or how I might want it to be, I gain a certain sacred perspective. It reminds me that beauty can be seen in anything as long as I allow my heart to see it, to feel the sadness and the joy, to perceive the whole rather than the fragments.
I believe Howard Thurman would characterize collateral beauty like this:
The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone itself is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat…It is not too far afield to suggest that there are things deep within the human spirit that are firmly embedded, dormant, latent, and inactive. These things are always positive, even thought they may be destructive rather than creative. But there they remain until our lives are swept by the forest fire: It may be some mindless tragedy, some violent disclosure of human depravity or some moment of agony in which the whole country or nation be involved. The experience releases something that has been locked up within all through the years. If it be something that calls to the deepest things in life, we, like the jack pine, grow tall and straight against the sky!
Meditations of the Heart, p. 82-83
Where are the moments of collateral beauty in your life? Would pondering such times or being present to others bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?