In 1994 the movie “Forrest Gump” won six academy awards including Best Picture and Best Actor (Tom Hanks). The main character, slow witted Forest Gump, never thought of himself as disadvantaged and led a full and active life.
For most of us when we think about the movie, the opening scene jumps out: Forrest Gump sitting on a park bench in Savannah, Georgia, with a box of chocolates on his lap. He looked down at the chocolates and calmly voiced the now famous words, “My momma always said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’”
As we begin a new year, it is the traditional time for New Year’s Resolutions. I gave up making them thirty years ago. My self-image couldn’t handle idealistic wishes going unrealized. (Never did learn how to speak Bulgarian.) I now accept life’s surprises instead. A surprise is an unexpected event, fact, or thing. We can feel anything from mild astonishment to delight to overwhelming shock or sadness.
In recent years we have all been surprised by a devastating virus leaving a life-shattering void in countless lives. There has been an additional surprise for many who have experienced emotional separation from loved ones because of political differences.
When grief and separation are front and center in our lives, celebrating a new year may be replaced by a dulling effect. It can feel impossible to create joy, harmony, or even normalcy when there has been great loss. If world views collide in families, no one rides in with silver bullets to fix things. There are no easy answers.
There is an old religious symbol, the mandorla, that can offer insight and help when we are faced with seemingly unreconcilable positions or great loss. “Mandorla” is an Italian word that translates “almond.” It is created by two partially overlapping circles. Each circle represents the opposite of the other. The overlapping circles create the form of an almond, symbolizing the paradoxes in our lives such as attraction, repulsion, individualism, and sameness. Life/death, good/evil, joy/suffering, and other contradictory experiences create tensions that everyone on the planet experiences. We should strive to live in the almond.
The mandorla must recognize objective truth and clearly articulated needs and goals to be effective. When this happens hope arrives, direction gains focus, and the ability to work together and compromise can come to the fore. Opposites in honest conversation can provide insight, hope, and direction. This is not easy. As Oscar Wilde once said, the truth is rarely pure and never simple.
We do not have the luxury of punching holes in the bottom of the chocolates to find a piece we like. We may have expectations for our actions, but we really do not know what outcomes and unanticipated results will immerge. While we never know the long-term implications of our actions, history tells us that our actions count.
There is another movie, an American classic, although it was not a box office hit when released in 1946. I watched it this Christmas as I do most every year. “It’s a Wonderful Life” causes pause and reflection as it speaks to the basic values of goodness and sacrifice, the destructiveness of misinterpretation, the gift of friendship, the pitfalls of greed, the importance of community, and the experience of loneliness. In the midst of life’s paradoxes, the movie ultimately reminds us of the enchantment found in everyday living.
George Baily played by Jimmy Stewart is a dissatisfied businessman who decides to end his life. Clarence, his guardian angel, intervenes and gives George a new perspective by showing what the town and many citizens would be like if he hadn’t lived. His absence would have made it a very different town.
George Baily, Forrest Gump, and those around them were better because the two men faced both the good and bad in their lives. We all face challenges and contradictions. Forrest and George realized it was in acknowledging their unique individuality with its strength and weaknesses blended with their acceptance, love, and concern for others that was the foundation of their lives.
These two iconic movie characters teach us that when we lose the foundation of our common humanity, our souls are missing in action. Without this common foundation people with whom we differ become the “other” and are demonized. There is only “my way or the highway.” There is no room for the mandorla.
Life is not lived in an “arrived state.” We live in a world of change. Each new year is full of surprises. There are new chocolates awaiting us in the box. In this new year we will once again be surprised. Some good and some bad.
We may not know what the vague future holds, but we do know that our actions have consequences. May the new year put us on a path to understanding each other, sharing truth, living with love and integrity, and accepting and growing from the surprises we will inevitably encounter.
“…it is a plunge into the unknown. The future is always dark.” – Rebecca Solnit
(There is an Italian candy named mandorla. It is milk chocolate with a blended caramelized almond praline filling. The different tastes when mixed together create a delicious new taste experience.)
Written by: Hartzell Cobbs
Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization. He is the author of the recent book, RavenWind, that is available through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Archway Publishing. His first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A Spiritual Approach to Aging, is available through Amazon.
More about Dr. Cobbs’ latest book, Ravenwind…
From ancient lore, down millenniums, traveling through worldwide mythologies, legends, and folktales, the mythical raven is entwined in the history of mankind. Most researchers agree that about twenty thousand years ago the first Americans came from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge to what is now North America. The Siberians and their shamans were accompanied by the mythical raven who mediated between the physical and spiritual worlds.
With the Siberian influence, Northwest Native American mythology speaks of the raven as creator, destroyer, and trickster. As in Siberia, raven soars on the wind between the great spirit/mystery and the physical world. Raven teaches respect for earth and the oneness of all that is.
In RavenWind, author Hartzell Cobbs offers at look at the raven’s role in world history and in Native American myths, legends, and folktales. He tells how the raven of folklore calls one to follow, to listen, and experience life with all its complexity, insight, ambiguity, contraction, and humor. With an emphasis on Native American tradition, Cobbs explores the presence of mythical raven in the mundane.