Death feels common to me—its stench, familiar. Growing up, its presence seemed to linger over my story—least of all when it tried to take my mother through cancer and father through heart disease. But despite all this, I never thought death would come after me. But it did.
Back in junior high, I was the brunt of many jokes. The abuse of these bullies—mostly verbal, but sometimes physical—became a daily experience for me. As soon as I walked into school, I was greeted with refrains of “You are so ugly,” “No one loves you,” “You are going to die alone.”
National Suicide Hotline
During this time, I started to become moodier and more melancholy—struggling just to get through the day. After months and months of bullying, and after months and months of becoming sadder, I was diagnosed with a major depressive and anxiety disorder. It was a heavy burden to carry, especially on top of the Tourette’s Syndrome that seemed to be the butt of everyone’s jokes.
Death often tempted me in those days, more so on the days when people told me they didn’t care if I lived or died. As a loner, places of refuge were few and far between. My church couldn’t possibly understand what I was going through—or so it seemed—and God seemed to be ambivalent at best to my hurt and complicit in it at worst. And so I found the one refuge which allowed me to feel, allowed me to wrestle with my emotions and wouldn’t judge me for them—film.
I had always loved film. When my mom had cancer, my dad and I would go to the movie theater and watch horror movies together, perhaps as an unconscious way of dealing with the real-life horror we were in the thick of. Even before then, anytime I was watching a movie, my dad would always sit down and watch it with me.
The older I got, the more perceptive I became to how film was able to give me a safe place to process the world around me, even though as a teen I didn’t really have the language to explain that in the moment. However, as years went by, my love for film would end up buried under reading theology and writing papers as I sought formal theological training in undergrad and eventually seminary.
And then 2017 happened.
Right before the previous year ended, my depression became a lot worse and I found myself having to address it much more seriously than I had in years. I was dealing with personal doubts and with major paradigm shifts in my understanding of the world. It was exhausting.
As 2017 rolled in, I thought the new year would allow for a new beginning and some relief. Then in February, my grandmother died suddenly. She had been one of the most meaningful people in my life. And I couldn’t seem to process that she was gone. I found myself feeling something I hadn’t really felt since high school: I had this overwhelming sense that I wanted to die. But it was also during this time that my love for film seemed to re-ignite.
It felt isolating and hard to try and communicate what I was going through without assuming I would scare people away. So, like high school, movies became a safe space for me to navigate and process my emotions in a healthy way—combined with a weekly counseling session with my therapist.
I found a lot of encouragement from cinema in those days.
In Martin Scorsese’s Silence, I saw the reality that sometimes holding onto faith is the most difficult thing in the world. In the face of the world’s evils, or evils done to us, faith can seem like a cheap substitute for facing reality.
With David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, I was given an invitation to grieve, to allow myself sit and feel the loss of my grandmother. For those who have seen the film, it is hard to forget the image of Rooney Mara sitting on the kitchen floor, coping with the loss of her husband as she eats a pie. That kind of emotionally-packed scene, along with those found in many other films I encountered, became glimmers of hope to me, reasons to stay alive and keep fighting.
Film became God’s comfort to me, reminding me he was not ambivalent to my sorrow but was well acquainted with it. After all, the incarnate Son tasted death but made sure it didn’t have the final word. Nor did it have the final word over me.
Cover photo by Erik Witsoe.