Warning: There are a few spoilers in this blog, but I don’t think anything I could say could possibly take away from the experience of actually seeing this film.
A couple of days ago I saw Ang Lee’s Life of Pi based on the novel by Yan Martel. I was completely and utterly stunned. I don’t usually have much enthusiasm for 3-D, but this is a film that should be seen in that format because the depth pulls you into the experience in an unforgettable way, helping you to enter into Pi’s world.
The plot seems relatively simple, but that’s an illusion. Most of the film takes place in a lifeboat (122 days) in the middle of the ocean with a tiger. An adolescent boy named Pi survives the wreck of the ship that was taking him, his family, and his father’s zoo from their home in India to their new home in Canada. A freak storm sends the freighter to the bottom of the ocean and a strange accident lands Pi, an enormous white and yellow tiger, a hyena, and a zebra with a broken leg in a large lifeboat that is half covered by a large canvas tarp that initially hides the tiger. Nature takes its course and soon the hyena and zebra are killed and consumed. Pi avoids the same fate through his ingenuity. While the tiger is filled with food and sleeping under the tarp, Pi creates a makeshift flotation device by roping together several life buoys and tying them to the back of the lifeboat by a long rope. Eventually, while he knows he cannot befriend the tiger, he realizes that he can train it to view him as the alpha animal and allow him to spend time on top of the tarp that covers the back of the boat.
What struck me was how I “recognized” what this film is about, how we can only learn certain things when we are pushed to the edges of experience. Pi experiences terror, loneliness, visions of unutterable beauty, pure grace at the edge of despair and, finally, a miraculous salvation because he will not give up, no matter what.
We Must Tell Our Stories
I visited all of these places as I battled stage 4 cancer three years ago—and won through back into an unimaginable new life and complete health. I tried very hard to write a self-help book about what I learned on that journey, all the people who helped me and loved me, and how something so powerful that I can’t even name it—God/dess, Divine Energy, the Universe, Compassion, the Great Mystery—reached out to me again and again in my greatest times of need. I discovered an extraordinary personal road map back to health and into abundant life, but what I finally learned in the end is that I can’t save anyone. I can’t just hand out that map like a Michelin Guide. I long so very much to end suffering in this world, but I also realize that we can’t save others from that suffering. The only one we can save is ourselves.
However, and what is most important, is that we do have an obligation as human beings to tell our stories. In that way we can give something to others. Many times, it’s not even a story, but just the way we are, the way live in the world, the way we love and allow ourselves to be loved, or how we deal with grief or setbacks—like Pi, refusing to give up. Often, when we do speak, our words might be remembered months or years from now, so far away in time that they seem to come from the very center of the person rediscovering these thoughts, who doesn’t remember us speaking those words at all, but instead feels them as if they have arisen from their own being.
There’s an old story told about the Buddha, how when he achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, the first thing he said when he opened his eyes was “This cannot be taught.” However, the gods Indra and Brahma come down to him and spoke a single word, “Teach.” He agreed “for the good of man and the gods,” and spent 45 years doing just that. But what he taught was not his experience, but the way to the experience. In other words, you cannot possibly give someone the answer, they must find it for themselves.
We Must Surrender
In The Life of Pi we witness the miracles that happen when a person is on the very edge of endurance and does not know the answer, does not know what help will come. Over and over again in this film we hear Pi—who since he was a young boy, has sincerely embraced Christianity, Buddhism, and a Hinduism without seeing these faiths as opposed and contradictory, say in his greatest hours of desperation—say, “You have taken everything from me. I surrender to you.” True surrender is an extraordinary experience. Every time in my life that I have surrendered, a miracle has happened. The thing is, you must really surrender. You must be willing to truly accept that whatever overwhelming thing is happening to you, that it is really for your highest good, that you will embrace whatever outcome. Only then can you finally release fear and fall into the arms of trust.
There is a scene in the film where a whale has come in the night and leapt over Pi’s raft, capsizing it and knocking all of his food and water rations into the ocean to be lost. Pi and the tiger are hungry, thirsty, and without hope but Pi surrenders himself and suddenly hundreds of flying fish appear and begin falling into the lifeboat. Pi has been trying to fish at the time and suddenly catches a large beautiful fish, fat and almost a yard long, in his makeshift net. All of this happens at once. As the fish struggles in the net, Pi hits it repeatedly on the head with the flat end of his ax, trying to kill it. He’s hungry and desperate, and this drives his gentle nature to uncharacteristic violence. As he strikes the fish, he weeps and says, “Forgive me,” over and over again. Finally, the fish is quiet. It looks at him as it is dying and he suddenly bows prostrate over it and cries out, “Thank you, Lord Vishnu, for coming to me in the form of a fish and giving your life for me.”
When the Journey Ends, Get Out of the Vehicle
Finally, all of the food and water is gone and Pi and the tiger truly are starving. Pi pulls the tiger’s head into his lap and tells him that it is the end. There is nothing left to hope for. Suddenly, the miracle happens. The boat bumps into a strange island that seems to be made of kelp plants and covered with thousands of lemurs, food for Pi and the tiger both, and pools of fresh water. For what seems like weeks, the two of them range over this strange place until Pi realizes that they must leave [I’ll keep his reasons secret.]
There’re some very interesting messages in that scene. First, there are times when we can’t quit, just because we’ve been saved. We haven’t reached our destination yet or fulfilled our purpose. The journey is incomplete. In another sense when I thought about that scene, I remembered something a person told me about surviving cancer. She said, “Stop worrying about getting sick again. You won’t. Cancer was a very powerful teacher for you, a vehicle that took you to a remarkable new place in your life. However, your journey with cancer is completed. When the journey ends, get out of the vehicle.” In other words, keep going forward toward the next goal.
Pi can’t quit trying to find his way back to the real world just because he’s been temporarily saved. He has to go all the way. And the only way to do that is to leave the island with the strength and healing he’s found and go forward. Otherwise he knows that he will die alone and unfulfilled.
On the edges of experience, there is unforgettable beauty. At one point in the film Pi sees the tiger staring fixedly over the side of the boat. “What do you see?” Pi asks, overwhelmed suddenly by a desire to share the tiger’s experience. From our next perspective we see Pi looking down into the ocean, which is filled with depths upon depths of shining phosphorescent fish and indescribable sea creatures. Is he suddenly seeing through the tiger’s eyes? Has he overcome his fear of the tiger, gotten into the body of the boat, and looked out over the edge? Is he having a vision? We don’t know, but it is beautiful and soon we have forgotten everything but the experience—the beauty itself. We have no more room in our heads for any thoughts, just for the pure feeling of being, of seeing, of union with the moment.
What Is Truth?
In the end our goal is not finding the “truth.” There is no ultimate truth. All we have is the story, how we tell it, share it, how we take what has happened to us and shape it to a greater purpose, to our own path of salvation. At the conclusion of the film when Pi has made it to the coast of Mexico and is being questioned by the agents of the Japanese insurance company, men who have come to take a report about how the ship was lost, Pi tells them his story of his long journey in the boat in the middle of the ocean with the tiger. And they don’t believe him. When he sees that they won’t accept his story, but need to go back with a report that can satisfy their bosses, he makes up a more mundane tale about how he, his mother, the first mate, and a murderous cook were alone in the boat and how only Pi survived in the end.
The film itself is a story within a story in which a failed writer is told to seek out Pi because of his unusual experience. Pi promises the writer that he will tell him an amazing tale that he may publish, and that by the end of the telling, the writer will “believe in God.” However, at the very end when the cameras pull back to the present and middle-aged Pi has finished, the audience can see the doubt on the writer’s face. Pi simply says to him, “Which story do you believe? Choose.”
That’s always what it comes down to in the end. We have an experience and then we must choose how to create the story—what really happened to us, what we learned, how we live now because of it. I think there is something utterly important in the simple decision to choose our truth.
Sooner or later we all find ourselves in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger. If you don’t learn to master this tiger, it will eat you. If you don’t learn to love it, it will starve to death and die. We need our tigers and our tigers need us. Without them, we will never be able to reach the other shore.