I don’t often go to the cinema, and if I do, my first choice certainly isn’t a war movie. However last week, urged on by friends who had seen the film Dunkirk, I took the plunge (ouch, that was a lousy pun, given the film subject!). I can’t say that I “enjoyed” the film, but it was extremely well done and deeply impressive. Hans Zimmer’s music was awesome.
One of several story threads involves the drama that unfolds upon one of the small private vessels recruited by the British government to rescue as many soldiers as possible from the beach at Dunkirk. The boat is piloted by a Mr. Dawson. On board are Mr. Dawson’s son Peter, and his young friend, George. During a scuffle, a rescued, shell-shocked soldier accidentally knocks George backwards down the stairs. He sustains a fatal head wound. When Peter comes to his aid, George says that he can’t see any more, and then with great difficulty confesses to Peter that he feels that he had never amounted to much. He hadn’t been good in school. He had always hoped to be able to do something really great, been a hero of some kind.
Peter realizes only later in the film that George has died. Soon after that, the shell-shocked soldier asks “Your young friend…will he be all right?” There is a moment of intense silence. Peter, swallowing hard, reassures the traumatized soldier that yes, his friend would be all right. The soldier seems immensely relieved. After they return safely to Britain, Peter goes directly to the local newspaper and initiates an article that describes George as a “hero” in the Dunkirk evacuation.
Two questions arise for me from Peter’s response. Why didn’t Peter tell the traumatized soldier the truth? And why did Peter “stretch the truth” when he insisted that the local newspaper portray George as a hero, rather than the victim of an accident?
In his split-second decision, Peter displays both pity and compassion. He senses instinctively that adding guilt to trauma would smudge out that small flame of self-esteem, that ember of the will to live and to heal, that still existed within this tormented man. In his moment of hesitancy, Peter realizes that although the accident had happened, and the horrible harm could not be undone, he himself was still able to prevent further anguish from happening.
In our preparation for the Days of Awe, going into the shadowed places of our lives and ferreting out what we want to transform does not mean wallowing in self-condemnation. There is an indestructible part of our essence that is pure and linked to its Holy Source.
When Peter “stretches the truth” by proclaiming George’s accidental death as an heroic act during warfare, he is honoring not only George’s memory, but (as I see it) also the holy connection that was within George no less than within the man who unintentionally knocked him down the stairs.
Our task in the weeks ahead is to be as merciful as possible with each other and as gently nudging as we think we can be towards ourselves. The misunderstandings and the hurts between each other are left for each one of us to approach, clarify, and– if possible — to forgive, even if it means compassionately stretching the truth.
With blessings for merciful encounters in this month,
Rabbi Rebecca Kushner
“The Prairie Rebbe” received ordination from Aleph and MSJE
from Spertus Institute. She is Rabbi (part-time) in Galesburg, IL and Waterloo IA.