ESSAY
Detached People Can Only Float
POSTED
May 26, 2016

Weightlessness is fun.

At the beginning of Gravity (2013), we can see one astronaut dancing the Macarena and another one playing with his jetpack. They like it out there in the space. Apart from zero-gravity they can enjoy beautiful views, and even the silence is likable, although Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) prefers listening to his music.

“Gravity gives things weight. It is, therefore, the source of our daily torments. It restricts the freedom, creates barriers, hinders movement and life”, observes Bronislaw Wildstein (Do Rzeczy). Would it not be good to liberate ourselves from all the restrictions?

Soon after the beginning of Gravity the joyful play of the astronauts is abruptly interrupted by debris from a damaged Russian satellite. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is floating freely and chaotically in space after her safety line breaks. She is breathing heavily, and her oxygen reserves are speedily running low.

Now she can experience what zero-gravity really is. It is no longer fun but lethal danger. As long as she was connected with her spaceship, she was still limited by the safety line and did not “enjoy” full weightlessness.

Fortunately for her, Kowalski catches her, but as they get back to the spaceship, it turns out that it is completely damaged and the rest of the crew is killed. They decide to move to a Russian space station. As they get closer to the space station, their jetpacks are no longer useful due to lack of fuel. Eventually, to save Dr. Stone’s life, Kowalski decides to sacrifice his.

Dr. Stone eventually manages to return to Earth after much toil and labor. But before she can walk freely again, she almost burns as her capsule enters the atmosphere, and drowns as the capsule lands in the water.

It turns out that the astronauts could enjoy weightlessness only as long as they were not exposed to it fully. Humans cannot survive in true zero-gravity. We cannot survive in the open space unless we have some artifacts which preserve our lives. The things and forces which limit us or even endanger our lives are the same things and forces which enable us to live and act.

It seems that the director (Alfonso Cuarón) wants us to perceive Gravity as more than just another catastrophic action movie. At the beginning of it, Kowalski speaks about his wife’s betrayal and starts telling another story, but he is interrupted by the debris. This ethical dimension of the film is reinforced when Kowalski first tries to save a body of his fellow astronaut, and even more later, when he gives his life for the life of Dr. Stone.

But we are encouraged to move even further, beyond ethics and towards religion and metaphysics. On the Russian space station, Dr. Stone sees a picture of St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers. On a Chinese space station, she finds a statue of Buddha. On her final way back to Earth, she regrets that she has never learned to pray and wishes that someone could pray for her.

Ethics, customs, laws, truths limit us. Sometimes they feel like a straitjacket, and we want to get rid of them. We want to fly free like a bird. We worship spontaneity and creativity, but we forget that even a bird can fly only thanks to gravity, and we can be creative only when we stand on the shoulders of others.

“Modern culture lures us with a dream of crossing natural boundaries. Apparently we can be everything and everyone, we can change the gender and identity, we can achieve absolute freedom. In other words, it encourages us to overcome the force of gravity. Very soon it becomes clear, however, how annoying is this ‘lightness of being.’ We find that without gravity we cannot live. We begin to long for our environment, and therefore the nature with its limitations and determinism. We realize that they define our identity,” continues Wildstein.

When Dr. Stone gives up and tries to escape the reality by death, she dreams about Kowalski, who tells her: “You need to stand on the ground and begin to live.” But what is the ground which we have to stand on in order to begin to live? Is it ethics, customs, tradition, state regulations?

Alfonso Cuarón, if I read him well, gives a rather conservative answer. On their way to the Russian space station, Kowalski tries to encourage Dr. Stone by leading her thoughts back to her hometown and family. Her past and her relatives mold the anchor for her life. She can push forward only if she rests her feet on her past.

It reminds me of what Roger Scruton said: “Conservatism is the philosophy of attachment. We are attached to the things we love, and wish to protect them against decay” (How to Be a Conservative). Conservatism can be restraining, and yet it also gives us the opportunity for real progress. Detached people can only float.

As Christians, we cannot invoke only the time-honored paths of the past. They too have to be anchored in something even more reliable. Ethics needs metaphysics and not just tradition.

Long before we know there is such a thing as metaphysics, people teach us how to walk, how to talk, what to admire, what to pursue, how to tell good from evil or useful from redundant. We do not learn about metaphysics in a Cartesian way. We follow people we are attracted by. We are attracted to their field of gravity, as we come to this world and move on.

But then life happens, and our initial habits are tested, and in the end we need to answer the question: Is it Buddha or Jesus? Whose example would best encourage me to give my life for my friend? Whose teaching would make the most sense of such a sacrifice? Whose life would lead me to welcome and embrace gravity?

After all, we don’t want to be like the Soyuz space ship caught on a leash and tossed around when the debris hits the Russian space station. We want to stand on the ground and begin to live. It does matter what kind of forces dictate our movements. Some connections have to be cut off.

Precisely because it limits us, gravity puts barriers on our paths, hinders life, and also conditions life. “Human limitations and risks, burdens, and difficulties make up our world. Deprived of them we cannot survive, we fall apart, we perish,” concludes Wildstein.

Weightlessness is fun, provided there is gravity. Liberty is good, provided we stand on the solid ground.

Bogumil Jarmulak is a Pastor in Poznan, Poland, and Presiding Minister of the Anselm Presbytery of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches.

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