As I watched the movie Birdman last week, I was riveted by the metaphors that seem to coincide with, yes…caregiving. Caregiving is the long emergency, the crisis that never stops. However, it offers what any hardship has to offer, the opportunity for clarity and accelerated change.
I began to see the same process I went through while caregiving in living color as a dramatic animation that made me smile and understand what Michael Keaton’s character was trying to tell us. The process of reinventing yourself as you age can be brutal, especially when others’ perspectives of you have changed because of your age. However, the internal process is even more challenging.
The value of life and what someone can accomplish at any age is only limited by their will and determination. I began to see the animated Birdman, who shadowed Riggan Thomson (played by Michal Keaton) in his every move, as a symbol of his heart and will, encouraging him to never stop trying, to not settle for what others see, but to pursue the dream he had deep inside.
Riggan is a washed-up actor, famous for playing Birdman in a series of superhero films. He’s attempting to make a comeback by directing and starring in a Broadway play. In the face of his messy everyday life, Riggan struggles to keep his dream in focus, knowing that no matter what it looked like from day to day, he was in fact, making progress. This was demonstrated through repetitive rehearsals of the play, as not only Riggan, but all of the actors struggled to reach that magical alignment while each of their personal lives were falling apart. It reminded me of the many stages we each go through in caregiving as we move through levels of clarity and denial.
The main actor in the play (Edward Norton’s character) who was supposed to save the play, admitted what a fake he was in his own life. The actress playing his girlfriend (Naomi Watts), played a victim of circumstances on and off the stage. The critic who had made up her mind even before seeing the play, seemingly the expert, was blinded by her own ego. And Riggan’s daughter and assistant (played by Emma Stone) was disillusioned, but still young and open enough to see the truth from another perspective.
The Birdman demonstrated his determination the strongest when he accidentally locked himself out of the theatre to smoke a cigarette before opening night. Caught in his underwear, he walked through the crowd, through the front doors of the theatre and onto the stage. It was raw. It was real. The audience felt it. I felt it. His determination to keep going after his dream was bigger than his circumstances.
He had risked everything. At the point at which you think he’s been driven to his limit, given up and is about to shoot himself in the last act on stage, he reaches a tipping point where he decides to go all the way. He does shoot himself, but something unexpected happens.
The messy, hopeless, repetitive life turns into the dream.
But it was the reflection on his life and the compassion he developed that caused him to finally transform his situation. In the midst of failure, heartache and despair, the hardship offered him lessons. As he reflected on his past behavior he reconnected with his ex-wife and daughter. But it wasn’t until he came to terms with himself that the dream became a reality.
Birdman had to do it alone. No one else could see it. Just like in life, we have the critics, the fakes, the victims and the spectators all of who focus on the messy circumstances and the impossibility of change…until it finally happens.
Amidst this tension between faith and taking action there is potential for enormous creativity. The determination to make it through tough circumstances, letting the process transform you, is the gift hardship brings to us.
However, the process of hardship forces us to look deep inside. Crisis brings clarity. Circumstances, age or even money can never limit our potential for self-actualization.
It was the repetition and disappointments that pushed Birdman to focus even harder on his dream. He evolved through it not by his circumstances changing, but by him changing. His will and heart were forged by the repetition of every miserable, problem-fraught rehearsal.
The Birdman reached down deep inside, faced himself and kept pursuing his dream. It was only then that he was able to finally fly.
We are not washed up because we are caregiving. We are incubating and like Birdman, preparing ourselves to fly.
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