Instead of reviewing a book, I decided to review a movie this week, the Life of Pi, although I’ll state right off that I’ll never be able to do it justice. You'll just have to see the movie, or read the book.
It’s about a boy, Pi, who lives in India with his family. His father runs a zoo. In his preteen years, Pi isn’t much like other boys, in that he’s deeply interested in philosophy and religion. He adopts Hindu, his family’s religion, but also Christianity and Islam. His father tells him he cannot believe in them all, but he reminds his father that in Hindu, there are something like 30,000 gods, and so why can’t he also believe in these others.
When the zoo closes and his father intends to set up a new zoo in Canada, the family, along with the zoo animals, board a ship. Unfortunately, a horrible storm at sea sinks the ship and all passengers except for Pi, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and Richard Parker, a ferocious Bengal tiger. Soon all but Pi and the tiger are dead.
Pi spends the rest of his time (over 200 days at sea) until his rescue, trying to make peace with the untamable tiger, who has pretty much taken over the lifeboat, leaving Pi to spend most of his time in a small, circular life preserver. Pi does manage to establish tenuous dominance over him, but is never able to trust him fully. Though Pi never tames him, he is sure that if it were not for his vicious companion, Richard Parker, he would’ve died. At least he had some company during his travails at sea.
When they reach land, and the tiger finally crawls into the jungle, and safety, it doesn’t even look back at Pi, who so longs for him to do so.
In the end, Pi is a grown man with a family when an author shows up at his door, wanting to hear his tale of survival, and possibly to write about it. Pi tells him the fantastical story, as well as a second, more likely version. One that may—or may not have been—believed by the Japanese insurance adjusters who didn’t believe the fantastical story. It’s not known which one they ultimately believed, nor does it matter.
The author wants to know which story is true. Pi says they are both stories, and asks if it matters. The man thinks about the symbolism of the fantastical story, and decides that Pi must’ve been the ferocious tiger, and the other animals were humans that, for one reason or another—maybe even that the tiger killed them—did not survive, possibly suggesting that Pi might’ve resorted to cannibalism. [This might be something I read into it; there was no conversation about it in the movie.]
In another vein, I also saw the tiger as a symbol for Mother Earth, which definitely nurtures us, but is always, in final analysis, uncontrollable. We cannot stop her storms or earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and so on, but are always at mercy to her.
Pi asks him which story he likes better. The author likes the fantastical one. “So write that story,” Pi tells him.
The Life of Pi is probably the most philosophical movie I’ve ever seen. It tiptoes around being blatantly didactic in places, but it was still excellent for so many reasons. I liked the message, or what I took away as the message—
Often, things that happen to us don’t make much sense. That is why we create stories, to give meaning to events. Our attitude toward the happenings creates the tone of our stories, personal or communal. We decide what our life, and its moment-by-moment thoughts, actions, conversations, and events, will mean to us.
We create the stories about our lives, but we do not create our lives themselves. That’s the work of our Creator. But until we shape a story around an event, it is inherently meaningless. Living without meaning is uncomfortable. Yet that’s what life presents to us, like in the end for example, when the tiger doesn't look back at Pi, after sharing over 200 days with him, lost at sea.
But we can, and there is a deep need, to create stories--meaning--around around our life's events. That's why everyone is a storyteller, and many of us love it so much that we seek to do it professionally.
One last word, and I think Pi would agree with this: Because we are free to choose the meaning of what happens to us, why not choose the more empowering one for our stories. So often, we believe things that dis-empower us. In the Life of Pi, the realistic story felt terribly dis-empowering, even shameful for Pi.
But the choice is really ours. Empowerment. That is a golden word to me.