“A job at the end of the world. A salary killer for a big petroleum company. I don’t know why I did half the things I’ve done, but I know this is where I belong. Surrounded by ex cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind.
“There’s not a second goes by when I’m not thinking of you in some way. I want to see your face, feel your hands in mine, feel you against me. But I know that will never be. You left me and I can’t get you back. I move like I imagine the damned do, cursed. And I feel like it’s only a matter of time. I don’t know why I’m writing this. I don’t know what can come of it. I know I can’t get you back.
“I don’t know why this has happened to us. I feel like it’s me, bad luck, poison. And I’ve stopped doing this world any real good.”
Thus begins the movie, “The Grey,” one of my absolute favorite films. Admittedly, my cinematic tastes often tend to run a bit dark, and this movie is no exception. In it (and I recommend reading this with caution, as I am about to spoil the entire plot), Liam Neeson plays John Ottway, a man who loses his wife to an illness and goes to Alaska to hunt wolves for a petroleum company. As he is making his way out of the snowy Alaskan wilderness, his plane crashes in a vast wasteland, leaving a handful of survivors to fight for life in the midst of an intense blizzard. To make matters worse, a pack of enormous wolves begins to pick them off one by one, forcing them to move into a nearby forest.
Ottway believes the wolves are threatened because the humans are close to their den, so Ottway tries to steer the group away from where he thinks the den might be. The wolves follow and continue to kill off the men, until Ottway is the only one left. In a fit of desperation, he raises a rough, honest prayer into the sky:
“Do something. Do something. You phony prick. Fraudulent motherfucker. Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real! I need it now. Not later. Now! Show me and I’ll believe in you until the day I die. I swear. I’m calling on you. I’m calling on you!”
Ottway looks to the sky in a nearly frantic search for some sign of acknowledgment, a miracle, a helicopter, a person, a divine hand to reach into the stark barrenness and save him. His face wears the stern look of a man whose heart is afraid.
But the sky remains replete with soggy, ashen clouds. There is no hand, no helicopter, no sign of a miracle.
“Fuck it, I’ll do it myself. I’ll do it myself.”
Ottway continues on, but it isn’t long until he finds himself in the very place he was trying to avoid all along: the wolves’ den. Ultimately, it is suggested that Ottway dies in the den, but manages to take the alpha wolf with him.
So, yes, it’s a dark film. Everybody dies.
Which isn’t exactly unfamiliar in the human condition. Many people I know said this movie was very anti-Christian, sinful in its depiction of death, suicidal tendencies, and faith. I found it rough, but also honest in many ways.
Sometimes, that miracle never comes. A long wait may never have a culmination. It would be quite naive of me to think that every prayer I pray will have an affirmative answer. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say most of the important prayers I’ve prayed have not been answered affirmatively. There are many that remain as-yet unanswered.
And that’s okay. Every time I think I have God figured out, He does something (even if doing something can sometimes mean doing nothing) to prove me wrong. He is, as ever, enigmatic and inscrutable. Realizing this has added some realistic perspective to my idealistic nature. For a long time, this disappointed me and even made me wonder if God was truly involved in the day-to-day affairs of His creations. Now, if I’m honest, it doesn’t faze me.
Perhaps this is a bit cynical, but it seems to me to have some healthful benefits. I’m no longer expectant of the miraculous. I have experienced the death of expectation, which has led to greater life satisfaction in many ways. I am happy when goodness comes; I’ve learned that disappointment and hardship are inevitable, but so is happiness, and one will just as surely follow the other just as spring follows winter, as surely as death follows life.
Ottway seems to accept this in the end, but he doesn’t allow the alpha wolf to take him without a fight. To me, that’s the encouraging part of the movie: in the face of certain, inevitable, imminent death, you still push on. When the miracle doesn’t come, when the answer you so desperately hoped for doesn’t pan out, you continue living the life you have left.
Ultimately, Ottway decides that the little bit of life he has left doesn’t need God, and I know that many people choose this. I’ve chosen it before and I can respect why people might choose not to believe. God doesn’t work like we think He should. The world doesn’t look the way we think it should look. Realism and cynicism mess with our idealism, our grand visions of all the utopian possibilities that could be, if only the world could just cooperate with itself.
I can’t give a pat answer as to why you should believe that God is involved and He cares. On bad days, even I don’t know why I believe it. Even the answers I’ve learned over the years can be downright unsatisfactory. But maybe I believe because it’s still possible to see goodness even while surrounded by such profuse evils. Maybe I believe because I look around into the wild world and still see immeasurable beauty. Maybe I believe because I continue to fight to believe. Sometimes the fight is all there is.
No matter what comes (or doesn’t come), we can at least press on, plucky and mettlesome, knowing that somewhere along the way we will encounter a surprising thing: the pleasant knowledge that we fought well. When I look back at the end of my life and see that I lived with fire and spirit and fought for goodness, I will see that I lived a good life, even if many important prayers were denied or unanswered.
And maybe that’s the biggest miracle, the greatest answered prayer of all.