WASHINGTON – Many of us have a traumatic childhood memory of losing our mother’s hand in a grocery or department store and feeling, for a panicky moment, that we may never be found again. For Saroo Brierley, the separation was real and lasting – a story so extraordinary and harrowing that it carries an excellent movie called “Lion.”
No big cats were employed in making the film. Rather, at the age of 5, Saroo gets separated from his brother, boards an empty train, falls asleep and eventually ends up a thousand miles away in an unfamiliar part of India. He becomes a street child – there are plenty of them in this sometimes merciless world – vulnerable to sexual trafficking. Instead, he is placed in a Dickensian orphanage, plucked up by an international adoption, and finally lands in a loving Australian home.
Not really finally. As an accomplished young man, Saroo begins to feel restless, rootless and homeless and starts an obsessive search (on Google Earth) for the small village he only recalls in flashing images. “Every day,” explains Saroo, “my mother screams my name.” I won’t ruin the ending, but suffice it to say there is Kleenex involved. Nicole Kidman, the real-life mother of two adopted children, plays the role of Saroo’s Australian mum with particular charm and fierce affection.
Full disclosure: One reason the story spoke to me is that my wife was plucked from a South Korean orphanage at the age of 6, placed on a jumbo jet and delivered to a loving American, Midwestern home. But “Lion” raises broader issues of identity – ethnic and otherwise – that are implicated in most human stories.
If we feel homeless, not just in the world but in the universe, the search for home becomes a spiritual quest. “Spiritual” does not always mean religious. On the evidence of the movie, Saroo’s remarkable quest was not. But the questions raised by the film – “Who am I?” “Where do I belong?” – have nearly universal resonance.
The most powerful summation of the Christian faith is the story of a lost child, this one choosing to leave home, squandering his inheritance and eventually wallowing in a sty with pigs. He suspects he can only return to his family as a servant, but his father, seeing him from afar, “ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”
Taken seriously (which does not mean literally), that parable represented a spiritual revolution. God as parent. A distant abstraction as “Our father,” and our mother as well. No one can damage themselves beyond hope.
Even if we reach the shores of our own Australia – a place of relative comfort, success and respect – a sense of rootlessness can grow. Comfort can suddenly feel like complacency. Success can seem empty or horribly fragile. Respect can become a treadmill of expectations. If we take an hour for introspection, fully examining our flaws and failures, we generally decide never to do it again. It is uncomfortable to be naked and helpless, with our humanness showing.
If we must prove our worth, it is possible to be worthless. If we earn love, it is conditional and fickle. That is the substance, in many cases, of depression. A relentless voice of self-judgment. “My thoughts,” said the poet and priest George Herbert, “are all a case of knives/ Wounding my heart.”
It is possible, even as accomplished, sophisticated adults, to slip a parent’s hand and wonder if we will ever be found again.
Some will scoff, because they have not yet reached this point in their lives. Others conclude that this sense of homelessness is rooted in human nature but corresponds to nothing real in the world. But many have found comfort in that ancient story of a missing child, promising a parent’s unconditional love: “You are my beloved, on you my favor rests.”
It is not an easy thing – maybe the work of a lifetime – to live as if we are loved. To quiet the voices of self-condemnation. To live outside the tiny cosmos of our own desires. To extend the grace we have been shown. To act on a vision of humanity in which all are equally loved by God.
A path determined by these resolutions may lead to unexpected places, maybe not to a sty, but perhaps to a stable and a star. “To the end of the way of the wandering star,” wrote G.K. Chesterton. “To the things that cannot be and that are/ To the place where God was homeless/ And all men are at home.”
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.