I recently watched the incredible film The Whale starring Brendan Fraser in the finest performance of his career, a magnum opus that earned him this year’s Best Actor title at the Academy Awards.
At its core, the movie is about love, and contains profound lessons about our inability to truly see ourselves the way others do. Fraser’s character Charlie is a morbidly obese English professor who teaches online courses without revealing his appearance. He is divorced and estranged from his teenage daughter, and blames himself for these broken relationships – as well letting his weight get out of control.
His self-loathing is palpable, yet he consistently encourages his students, sees the absolute best in his daughter, and seems to have enduring love for the few people in his life, even if he is incapable of loving himself. Similarly, Charlie’s daughter Ellie doesn’t see the potential in herself, and her view of the world is full of cynicism.
Throughout the film, this disconnect between perception and possibility is a reminder of the skewed ways we see ourselves… And how we can’t ever truly understand what’s going on in someone else’s head. Not only is our self-perception colored by the internal thoughts we don’t fully share with others, the same is true for everyone else as well.
We often judge the behavior of others without fully understanding their experience, and yet, we also know that our inner lives are more complex than we reveal. We filter the actions of the people around us through our expectations of them, while at the same time censoring our own true selves with the expectations we assume others have for us. This dance means both denying others our full and authentic selves AND not accepting and engaging with others where they truly are.
You can’t manage another person’s inner life, but you can see them in all of their complexity, accept that you won’t ever know the full breadth of their thoughts and experience, and engage with them in vulnerability to help create something beautiful.
Meeting someone where they are is an act of intimacy. We can understand the word as “into me, see.” To accept another person as having the same detailed, nuanced inner life as you also provides them an opportunity to reciprocate – thereby letting them through the veneer of “presentation” that we so often put forth into the world.
Vulnerability means truly seeing others, and in turn, allowing ourselves to be seen… Even the ugly parts.
So, inspired by The Whale and this idea of opening up, I’d like to propose a radical question…
What if creating relationships had nothing to do with how we feel about ourselves?
Charlie is in the grips of self-loathing, and accepts the part the major role he played in Ellie’s emotional damage. Even though he isn’t an ideal candidate to help her, he tries nonetheless because he sees something she cannot. He wants to help her create a life of love and self-acceptance, even if it requires opening old wounds and facing some of his own demons.
This is a generative act of creation. He knows what kind of world he wants to create for Ellie, and none of his actions are about helping himself. Charlie embraces vulnerability of the highest order, and his attempts to reconcile with his daughter aren’t about himself. He is guided by service, and feels genuine love for his daughter that is separate from the hatred he has for himself.
The film itself is tragic, but the lessons we can apply are inspiring – and even transcendent. While we can’t control the inner lives of others or expect them to fully understand our own, we can lean into vulnerability to foster growth and connection. The Whale is an extreme example, but it shows that the creative act prevails no matter who we think we are.
In the audio presentation below, I dig deeper into these ideas and the moving effect the film had on me. We see that creativity starts with loving something, not with yourself. There are no guarantees, but when we begin from a place of understanding the current reality as best we can, opening ourselves up to possibilities, and staying the course in service of something larger than ourselves despite difficulty and discomfort, we harness the potential to bring something into the world that would not have otherwise existed.
There are profound messages in this sometimes uncomfortable movie, just like in reality. It’s a lesson in perception, identity, vulnerability, and ultimately, love. Seen in the right light, there is immense power in The Whale to show us what it truly means to see and be seen.
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