"Yea, though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff--
they comfort me..."
I went to see the movie "50/50" with a dear friend. I often write about illness, dying and facing the reality of mortality, so I don't think it came as a surprise to her that I would want to go. As a professor of film, I knew she'd go see a movie, any movie, but I wanted her to go as my friend, as someone who challenges and encourages me, who would companion me with laughter and tears through the valley of the shadow of death when that time comes. If you have a dear friend, you definitely should see "50/50" with her or him.
At the heart of the movie lies the previous verse from Psalm 23. Although not specifically religious or spiritual, the movie's narrative arc follows this verse with great poignancy.
The film begins with a shot of Adam Learner, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, confidently adjusting the tunes on his iPod while out on a run. He is healthy, confident and follows all the rules. Like most 27-year-olds, he is not contemplating death in general or in particular. But the shadow of death quickly finds him.
Sitting across from his physician, who is rapidly regurgitating multi-syllabic medical terms into his Dictaphone that describe the life-threatening tumor growing on Adam's spine, we see first-hand how the shadow of death blurs and clarifies a person's version of what's real, solidifies and disintegrates relationships, and brings out the best and worst in ourselves and in those we love or who we think love us.
Fear stands at the ready to paralyze, numb, anger, confuse and torment. As his therapist, played by Anna Kendrick, repeatedly offers, "What you are feeling is normal..." And Adam, rightly so, responds that he doesn't want what he is feeling and experiencing to be normal. He just wants it to end. He wants to go back to a place of ontological security where the sun drowns out the shadow of death, and a person can dream, hope or worry about a story on volcanoes or running out of shampoo without the burden of existential meaning and purpose on his back.
In facing his fears, Adam manages to find comfort through the rod and staff of his friends and family. Through my service in hospice care, I have seen how when a person faces serious illness and the reality of death, he or she does not often have the luxury of choosing who sticks around and who leaves. However, those who stay are often the ones who both challenge us with the rods of life-long annoyances or behavior patterns or immaturity but also nurture us with the staff of shared memory, loyalty in the face of chemo, vomit and bald heads, and well-timed humor. In reality, our family and friends still need us to be us, even when we are sick. They can be quick to remind us that being sick doesn't excuse us from asking your mom how she is doing or from cleaning out a friend's car or from acting like a juvenile with your high school buddy. In fact, it is probably at those times when you feel most fully yourself.
Eventually, the shadow of death will make itself known to us all and the chances for surviving life are not 50/50 but 0/0. In the meantime, may we value those who walk in the valley with us, be challenged and comforted by those whose love we have inherited and by those whose love we choose and hopefully, through it all, laugh from time to time.
To read more from Amy Ziettlow on aging, death and dying visit FamilyScholars.org.