I recently saw an amazing movie that surprised me in packing such an emotional punch. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” directed by Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”) is about the emotional and psychological price American soldiers pay to do their jobs to fight our wars and defend our democratic values.
Nineteen-year-old Billy and his comrades barely survive a tense battle in Iraq, and are celebrated as heroes back home in the United States. After the Department of Defense brings the group home, they go on a promotional tour across the country that culminates at the halftime show in Dallas for a Thanksgiving home football game.
That’s when flashbacks take us back to the horrors of the Iraq war. The tension and fear and plain terror are palpable as the soldiers are shown preparing for the battle. We’re not completely spared the shocking brutality of the killing and property damage as shots and mortars fly back and forth.
In the pivotal scene, Billy tries to save his sergeant after he is fatally injured. Even as he sobs uncontrollably, he chases down the man who killed the sergeant, and kills the man in one of the most intense, horrifying up-close scenes from war I’ve ever seen.
Billy in particular is hailed as a hero for his action, but the humble young man simply says he did what had to be done — precisely what real heroes always say. The sergeant had taught Billy to be a warrior, rather than a mere soldier, and to embrace rather than run from his fear. That is precisely what Billy did that awful day, and the memory of his sergeant’s words will eventually lead him to embrace himself as a warrior who conducts himself with dignity, pride, and precision.
The halftime show seems to include every noisemaking and nerve-rattling effect imaginable, including fireworks and other explosions. Some of the soldiers naturally freak out because the memories of war are so vivid. When one soldier starts to lose control and storm about because he is suffering a major post-traumatic flashback, Billy grabs him and holds him tight.
“Focus on the good! Focus on the good!” Billy shouts at the young man.
It was a startling moment for me and stunningly clear in what it signified. That is this: Even in one of the most terrifying experiences a human being could have — his mind flashing back to a highly traumatic event — the one thing that can pull him back from the edge of absolute fear and despair is to focus his mind on the good.
What is the good, exactly? I would say it is up to each of us to define for ourselves. For one person, it could mean focusing on God, perhaps the serenity he experiences when he feels close to God. For another it could mean a beautiful natural setting, or thinking of the face of her husband or wife, and feeling hopeful and strong by holding the image in mind of the person whose love makes it all worthwhile.
However we define “the good” for ourselves, focusing on it can get us through even the extremes of war — or a concentration camp. In his amazing book Man’s Search for Meaning, the German psychiatrist Viktor Frankel recounts his own experience in a Nazi concentration camp. He says the men and women who were best able to hold onto their humanity and sanity were those who could as it were escape into their own minds. Memories of delicious meals, beautiful music, and loved ones — “the good” — became powerful tools in sustaining the will to live even under the dark cloud of death.
How often we get caught up in the things that cause us to be afraid. Even metaphoric explosions around us — the 2016 elections, for example — can upset our balance, perhaps even permanently, if we don’t regularly practice the simple, powerful message Billy Lynn yelled into his comrade’s face: “Focus on the good!”
It can save our sanity, maybe even our life.
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