Beyond the Wall
The film work of M. Night Shyamalan (Signs-2002; Unbreakable-2000) has always caught my attention. His 2004 film “The Village” (Warning -plot spoiler just ahead!) tells the story of a group of villagers who seem to be living an idyllic life centuries ago but are threatened by hostile and frightening creatures who live in the forest at the edge of the village. The fear of the creatures and what is beyond the village keeps the children in line, afraid and prevents them from exploring – for awhile. When one young girl must go beyond the village into the forest for a medical emergency she finds what she thought were the limits of her world are not real but only imposed by the village elders out of their fear. She comes to a wall and finds the rest of the world beyond it – strange, frightening but far more than she ever imagined.
Shyamalan’s story connects to the experience of people who are raised in highly controlled families, social groups or communities that use fear to dominate & control members such as Jim Jones’ “Peoples Temple” or the Hare Krishna commune of New Vrindaban, “The Message” adherents of William Branham or numerous others of all types and persuasions whose numbers are legion. They paint the world beyond the group as dangerous, threatening or evil and departure from the group means loss, exclusion, excommunication or worse (in some cases murder has actually been the result). The group member who strays or wanders beyond the control boundaries usually finds that beyond the walls of the group the world is a much different place than described. Such an experience is liberating as well as disorienting. Old definitions of one’s self, roles and rules are modified or abandoned. The uncertainty of the future can make one yearn for the certainty of the past – yet the past cannot be returned to any more than the knowledge of what’s beyond the wall can be erased from memory.
Another parallel I have noticed is with the person emerging from drug or alcohol dependence. The nature of addiction is like a self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing and self- limiting feedback loop that drowns out or covers over other options or possibilities. While the examples above are more about controlling groups, with addiction, the control comes through the combination of the addictive nature of the substance, and the feelings, thoughts, behaviors that feed it or feed off it, the consequences of dependence and the forming of manipulative and exploitive relationships exclusively based on supplying and getting more of the substance. The end result is very much the same – the person is convinced that the limits of the “village of substance dependence” is the only possible world and beyond is danger – even in the face of the ever-increasing destructive consequences that addiction brings with it. This is even truer for the person who was raised in a family where substance dependence, criminal thinking, anti-social activity or survivalist living was considered normal.
What moves a person beyond the limits of the village? That’s the million dollar question! For the person in a controlling group sometimes it’s a crisis or when time after time the behavior of leaders doesn’t match their sermonizing. It may be when emotional and cognitive dissonance between “the ideal community” builds and the advantages of belonging to the group wears thin. For the substance dependent, sometimes it’s when the promises of the substance are seen for what they are –empty or the negative consequences outweigh the supposed benefits. It may be when one encounters the first nibble of freedom and wonders what’s beyond the wall. Sometimes it’s the experience of true grace and real love that are neither conditional, performance based or require checking one’s freedom or brains at the door as the price of admission. There is life beyond the wall. And if you see someone who has just climbed over and looks somewhat dazed and disoriented it can be an act of love to stop and lend a supportive hand.