The Dark Side of Inspiration: Avatarâ€™s Suicide Hotline
In 1977, I stood up and cheered along with my fellow moviegoers, as Luke Skywalker destroyed the Death Star in that summer’s visionary blockbuster Star Wars. Our joyful reaction was involuntary. And I remember how energetic I felt following the movie when we stepped out of the dark theater into the bright sunshine: infused with youthful energy and hope for all the things I would do in my life.
Many viewers of this year’s blockbuster Avatar are experiencing the opposite response to the film – that is, entering the darkness as they exit the theater – a response that now has Avatar suicide hotlines and depression forums set up worldwide to support them. People are looking around at their world, our world, and struggling with feelings of depression and hopelessness, including suicidal thoughts. They long for the beauty of Pandora, the film’s utopian world, and – importantly – they feel that attaining that world in this one is impossible.
So people remain idealists about humanity and life on earth; that’s the good news.
The bad news is the blurring line of discernment in viewers (inspiration is one thing; fantasy is another) due to increasingly virtual experiences, online and otherwise, coupled with the parched desert of spiritual life that may be leaving them vulnerable to despair when faced with an altered, if more beautiful, version of reality.
Actor Stephen Lang, who plays Col. Miles Quaritch in the film, explains that "Pandora is a pristine world, and there is synergy between all of the creatures of the planet… I think that strikes a deep chord within people.”
Yes – we do live in a pristine world. Deep down we know that, no matter how polluted it is; the purest lotus blossom emerges from mud. That’s the deepest chord we know. And we also recall, somewhere in our DNA memory, that there is synergy between the creatures of the planet. We know that from sources as diverse as particle physicists, Buddha, St. Francis, the builders of Stonehenge, the umbilical cord, Carl Jung, the Internet and more. We even know it as “The Force” in the Star Wars saga, a concept I found comforting and energizing.
On the official Avatar Forum, there’s a thread entitled Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible. Over 1000 people have posted there, in search of help with their post-Avatar struggle with sadness. Here is a particularly concerning post:
“Ever since I went to see ‘Avatar’ I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them. I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it. I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora, and then everything is the same as in ‘Avatar.’”
The Dalai Lama lives every day with the memory of a seeker who sought his wisdom about reincarnation many years ago. The Dalai Lama explained his thoughts on this process of spiritual growth through rebirth – and the student committed suicide in an attempt to advance through that process.
No, suicide is not the answer to an alluring and perplexing movie. Instead, some perspective may be in order.
I recall seeing Pink Floyd’s The Wall when I was 19 years old. It was the midnight show at the 8th Street Cinema in New York City, not far from my college dorm at NYU. After the movie, I stopped in the rest room and found a teenage girl hiding under a bathroom sink, crying. She was about 15. I asked her if she was all right, and she shared how the film was deeply upsetting to her.
There is a difference in maturity between 19 and 15, and I was able to be of some assistance. I simply reminded her that (1) it is only a movie – and (2) it is only one man’s opinion – not necessarily the truth.
What Avatar does, perhaps, is ‘penetrate the miasma,’ as the line goes, breaking through to the illusions we hold about our selves and our lives, in a manner similar, perhaps, to The Matrix (1999). It reminds us of all that can be if we step up to the challenge and art of living fully. It also reminds us of how we can stray very far from that potential.
Still, the cinema is not meant to be reality, no matter how lifelike the 3D effects may be.
We need to take from the arts what inspires us, what teaches us – enjoy it – be glad for it – remember it – even inspire others with it – and use the best of it to enhance our experience of living.
Recalling the end of what may be the most enduring other-world of all time, Camelot, King Arthur says this to the young messenger who will keep the legend alive:
Each evening, from December to December,
Before you drift to sleep upon your cot,
Think back on all the tales that you remember
Where once it never rained till after sundown,
By eight a.m. the morning fog had flown...
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known as…
Camelot continues to reside in our mind and heart, because that is precisely where it does the most good – as we move, consciously or unconsciously, toward the ideals of the Round Table.
In time, I hope that the promising land of Avatar may find a similar residence.