Vocation in M. Night Shyamalan’s

Lady in the Water

M. Night Shyamalan's movie Lady in the Water reminds me that we habitually live relatively mundane, banal lives. Although our sensitive egos may disagree, our imaginations look out onto a rather narrow expanse. Yet when we are called on by the Transcendent, and we decide to cooperate, life becomes surprisingly three-dimensional and purposeful. By throwing our will into the search for our true vocation, is it possible that we will learn strange and mysterious things?

This seems to be the underground lesson of Lady in the Water, from a theistic, discipleship point of view. A group of urban transients living in a non-descript apartment block, led by Cleveland Heep the janitor (affably played by Paul Giamatti), are asked to pool their resources to solve this children's fairy-tale problem for adults: a Spirit Being from a watery underworld needs to find her way home. Heroes need not apply. But damaged, limited individuals in community are asked to find their inner vocations to help the lost ephemeral being called 'Story'.

Looking through the interpretive lens of seeking a spiritual vocation, what is an attentive viewer asked to consider?

We need community, more than just ourselves, to find our place. In our individualistic culture our instinct is to believe that it is all up to ourselves to find our central work. We may let others overhear what we are considering but we just know that the choice is all ours. In a practical way it is, of course, but in terms of Christian vocation in community, it is not the case. What we think we are 'good at' may only be a secondary gift or merely a superficial distraction. We truly need each other, in connection with the Spirit, to understand our purpose in our particular context. Why? For one, we can be self-deceptive. Sometimes we've unconsciously rejected what we are meant to be because of pain.

Cleveland in Lady in the Water is a good example. He is disillusioned because when he was a young doctor he was unable to protect his wife and children from an violent intruder. Alone again, he becomes a helpful yet suffering janitor. Only in the context of the apartment community that is formed does he realize that his pain has offered him a path to compassion for others, indeed a gift of healing. He didn't know what his place was until the others, particularly the 'butterfly' lady, suggested that he was the healer for the otherworldly Story. It was Cleveland's original sensitivity to helping the water 'narf', perhaps due to his past failures, that led him to put aside his doubts, trust her, and seek out the others necessary for the mission.

Paradoxically in healing Story, Cleveland was being healed himself through vulnerability. The power was in the weakness, not in his cleverness, nor in his latent medical skills. How really Christian this is, and how unpopular! It was Jesus who exhibited tremendous strength in vulnerability in opening his heart to people in need, and challenging the social and political structures of his day because of his deep dependence on God. With vulnerability comes risk, as Jesus found out in his socially-humiliating Roman execution. But spiritually it was and is another matter.

Back in the tale, in revealing his utter lostness at being without his family, Cleveland proves paradoxically that he is dependent on the Transcendent for his well being. Herein lies a deeper kind of strength. The same goes for us. When we barrier ourselves behind posturing and busyness, we lack any strength of character. However, when we come to the end of ourselves, and admit how vulnerable we really are, something mysterious takes place.

Our purpose that we are called to is satisfying but it has nothing to do with status, with how what we "do" compares with others. What is amazing in the movie is how the participants were attentive to what was needed, and they understood that the part they were playing needed to fit the context. There was a good kind of uncertainty that they felt, knowing that if they were called to another role they were okay with that. They were flexible enough, and wanted to have the 'eyes to see' what was needed.

Seemingly everybody was initially wrong in identifying their role in the Lady in the Water myth! Cleveland was supposed to be the 'guardian' but found out he didn't have the gift. The puzzle guy, Mr. Dury, gave up his role as the 'symbolist' because it didn't seem to be working. The backroom guys who loved to chat were not the 'guild' that was needed. (It was the sisters in fact.) They all had to sacrifice their current view of reality, until the right person was there for the job. How often do we like to hold on to our first impressions of what we want to be, even when it is long past proved wrong? Forget for a moment that the myth is in a sense only a movie, but the way that the individuals held their identified 'purpose' loosely can be instructive. That they all seemed to jump into helping this other person in distress, and were willing to be wrong at first is helpful. For pride reasons, sometimes we just don't want to be wrong so we stay passive and just out of the way.

In fact in the world of Spirit-led vocation there is no such thing as status. Individuals may be called to do seemingly more important or larger parts than others, but from a deeper vantage point, all of our vocations are necessary to complete the new creation that God is calling us to participate in. So social status, humanly-speaking, is relativized in the context of God's story. Conversely, if we are not playing those necessary vocational parts, something is lacking and the larger purpose is possibly being delayed or diverted. Does this not reflect the apostle Paul's view of the community being like a body which needs every part?

Earlier in my life I had visions of being a scholar/history professor or an investigative journalist, but I learned through clear promptings of the Spirit that this was not to be. I am still listening to what my vocation is being refined to be, but I feel more called now to use my gifts in research and writing as being a behind-the-scenes chronicler/consolidator of our Watershed intentional community. Yet I can be passive and take my role for granted. What the movie, and the biblical story is suggesting, is that I need to listen intently with an open heart, which is the opposite of being passive. Wherever we find ourselves, when we have decided that our version of reality is the only one, we may be deeply surprised. The movie critic resident plays a humourous, ironic role because of his hardened heart and fixed mental state. He believed that there was no 'originality' left in the world. However, what Shyamalan seems to be saying, and what the Christian Story also says, is that there is something definitely hopeful about the Transcendent realm, and it calls for something new to be born at the human level. It doesn't seem like an accident that Mr. Drury notices in his crossword that there is a 9-letter word for 'human form' which is 'incarnation'.

It is hard to suspend our cynicism, our powers of disbelief because part of our culture is built on a postmodern story that there is no significant meaning to life anymore. All the mystery is or soon will be flushed out of the world by advances in science, and the apparent relativity of truth systems in our world. Yet haven't we experienced mystery in our lives, in being forgiven, in being confronted with truth that inspires and animates us? These experiences, and those attested to biblical stories, particularly surrounding the story of Christ's incarnation, suggest that science can't capture everything in a bottle.

The movie, at best, says that we are defined by story and that we are called on to participate in a story of healing and reconciliation. I would suggest that God's story is forming us, and watching a movie like Lady in the Water can spark our thirst for listening to the Spirit in our world, and in our lives. Despite hurt, pain and suffering none of us are excluded from that need to be attentive to the Spirit. The Bible, vocationally speaking, is full of people being called not out of strength but of perceived weaknesses. Moses was a reluctant leader. The apostle Paul didn't think he had what it took. He was in fact a zealous Christian antagonist yet he was still called to preach Christ crucified to a myriad of Gentiles. In your community and mine, it would seem wise to listen to the lessons of the movie, that perceived weaknesses along with attentive listening in the context of community is a way forward to hearing and living out our personal and collective stories.

Whether Shyamalan knew the Christian underpinnings of spiritual vocation or not, Lady in the Water underlines and celebrates the fact that God can use, surprisingly so, our weaknesses. Heep has to become like a child, in fact, in all his vulnerability, to help Story return to her home.

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