I love the movie, Shawshank Redemption. I have watched it at least 10 times, though not in its entirety. Although I don't scan through the channels as much as I used to, if I see that it is playing I will stop what I am doing and join Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman wherever they are in the movie and watch to the end. Knowing how it ends never spoils the story.
In blogging, I have referred to movies both current and classic and someone in the comments inevitably cries, "Spoiler Alert!" And so I started to wonder, "Does knowing the end of a narrative really spoil the story?"
An interesting question to ask during the Christian season of Lent, which should annually require an ecclesiastical spoiler alert: Jesus lives! Do we need to tell the story of Jesus' life, trial, suffering and death, when we already know the end of the story? Does knowing that the resurrection is to come spoil the Lenten experience?
On a grander scale, beyond Christianity, I ask from my perspective as someone who serves in hospice care: Does knowing how all our human stories end (Spoiler alert: Death!) ruin the living of our life story?
A quick answer would be, "No." But, then why all the angst about spoiler alerts?
Roger Ebert started some of the discussion about the role of spoiler alerts with his Chicago Sun-Times article in 2005, 'Critics Have No Right to Play Spoiler." Ebert's reasoning focuses more on the delicate nature of character development and stresses that each of us should be free to be surprised by a character's choices. Reviewers should not spoil a character for new viewers.
In a recent movie review, John Anderson writes anew on spoiler alerts. He begins:
"There are two kinds of spoilers at the movies: The kind where someone gives away the plot point upon which the entire moviegoing experience rests, that ruins the movie before it's even begun, that makes you say "I might as well stay home." And the type where someone tells you the ship sinks in the "Titanic."
Anderson doesn't seem to distinguish much between these two types of spoilers but focuses instead on ruing the current extinction of pure experiences; where we encounter a narrative with no preconceived ideas about the story, the director, the genre, and so on.
But, I still wonder, do we really want experiences for which we have no frame of reference?
Perhaps, the movies are a bit benign but I see that in everyday life, we don't care too much for the unknown. In hospice care, each patient and family we serve is, more or less, having the end of life experience for the first time. Our mother dies only once. This particular friend dies only once. I die only once. Our hospice team spends a great deal of time relieving anxiety about what the future holds. One of our Medical Directors recently commented that at our hospice inpatient unit family members often ask him, "How long does Momma have?" This question doesn't tend to throw experienced hospice team members since we have long experienced that knowing how long someone will live is an inexact science, at best, and we, wisely, rarely venture a guess. This physician has learned that families do not actually want a fortune teller but are really asking, "What is going to happen next?"
Most of our day is spent in helping prepare patients and their related loved ones for what to expect next. Does this spoil the experience for them? Of course not. I take my guidance from one of my hospice heroes, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, who, in My Grandfather's Blessings on pages 350-1, advises hospice team members that our most important role is:
"to reassure those who are caring for them [patients] that something they have never seen or experienced is normal ... and because we make it normal, they are able to make it holy."
Perhaps movies fall into a different category than a philosophy of life or faith, but I know many people for whom the weight of a film has altered their perspective or their direction in life. My imagination wanders back to my many viewings of Shawshank Redemption ... I won't spoil it, I promise ... For the main characters, hope and resiliency lay not in the surprise of the future but in knowing what the next step would and could be. I'll take hope, resiliency and holiness over surprise any day.
To read more on aging, death, and dying from Amy Ziettlow visit www.familyscholars.org