If we try to stay alive, we shall die. If we are prepared to die, we shall live. –- Korean general Yi Sun Shin (1545 – 1598)[Caution: Spoilers]
Much has been written about The Dark Knight Rises and now, with its release on DVD/Blu-Ray (Dec. 3), even more will be written and debated about it.
However, this isn’t a review. I’m obsessed with this movie but not over artistic or technical details, alleged plot holes, the socio-political subtext (appreciated but not essential) or what the filmmakers intended. My concerns lie in the realm of mythology and of the collective unconscious where the conscious, creative intentions of individuals are of secondary importance.
This post is about a startling and somewhat unsettling piece of hard wisdom embedded within this film that, at a very critical point in your life, you may choose to apply. This post is about how The Dark Knight Rises can save your life.
Just for this moment, then, forget everything else about this film except for one symbol, one scene: the prison.
Trapped in a Private Hell
“Hell” is how numerous characters in the film describe a certain fictitious prison in an unknown part of the world in which Bruce Wayne at one point finds himself. This prison is characterized by an idiosyncratic kind of cruelty. It has no guards, no warden. There is no visible security infrastructure whatsoever. Instead, there is simply a cavernous pit in which the prisoners dwell, and a tall well leading out of it into freedom. It is a powerful symbol.
I know it’s fun to argue about details, but those who argue over the credulity of this prison are missing the point. Batman is not realistic. Myth was never intended to be realistic. But the lessons hidden within it can be realistic if applied well.
The prison in The Dark Knight Rises symbolizes hell but not a theological one (though it also could if you want it to). Mostly, it represents the very real hell of private, personal suffering.
The many mythical hells in Buddhist and Hindu cosmologies symbolically acknowledge that while there are different levels and intensities of suffering, they are all valid. So although the hell you may be going through is not the same as that of a boy in Rwanda watching his family be murdered, it is still your suffering and it is real and important and must not be disregarded.
The Mechanics of Suffering
The two primary components of suffering are, first, the external circumstances and events and, second, the internal thoughts and feelings in response to those circumstances.
The great wisdom traditions of the world, particularly the Eastern ones, tell us that we only truly have control over the latter. “Liberation” is therefore the attainment of a kind of contentment independent of external circumstances.
It is a profound and inspiring idea, but for most of us it is, by itself, not practical and immediate enough. If you are hungry and trapped in a boat at sea with water leaking in through a hole, do you attend to your hunger first or fix the hole first? You fix the hole first. Spiritual and philosophical concerns will always be there to contemplate, but often the material world presents urgent problems that scream for immediate attention.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, perhaps you are suffering now due to certain life circumstances. Or even if you feel that things are mostly going well, you know that this inevitably fluctuates, so sooner or later this will apply to you.
What is it you really want? What do you think must change for the suffering to ease? Beliefs about spiritual enlightenment or salvation of the soul may offer comfort but, frankly, in themselves they don’t change external circumstances. If you want change, you simply must take action.
Even if you believe in a kind of spiritual liberation (and I do), it takes years and years of searching and disciplined practice and even then there’s no guarantee you’ll attain it during your lifetime. And what about those who don’t believe in such things? They still need some form of psychological recourse.
So then why, despite trying to effect change, do we often fail? The rest of this post will attempt to offer one answer to this question.
How Purpose Gives You a Reason to Live
Despite whatever metaphysical truths underpin our existence, we are all living at the human level and humans need purpose in their lives to have a sense of meaning.
Bruce Wayne lost his purpose to live when both the great love of his life and his life mission were both taken from him. By the end of the second film, Batman was being persecuted by the public, and the beginning of the third film tells us that Gotham City experienced a dramatic drop in its crime rate. This, ironically, deprived him of whatever sense of purpose he might have had left and set him on the path toward despair.
But just when Bane begins wrecking havoc on Gotham and Bruce thinks that perhaps he is needed again, he fails spectacularly. The years of wallowing in misery and seclusion have made him sloppy, weak. He is defeated by Bane, badly, and now lies broken and defeated in this pit.
You Are Always Needed
Bane does not kill Bruce because he knows that the years of indulging in despair have left Bruce without the fear of death.
BANE: You don’t fear death. You welcome it. Your punishment must be more severe.
BANE: Yes, but not over your body. Over your soul.
Having defeated his body, Bane now wants to conquer Batman’s soul, but he can’t do it through fear because Batman, having courted despair for so long, does not fear death but almost craves it, even (actually, even this is a self-created delusion as we shall soon see).
And so Bane does it by terrorizing the city that represents everything that both Bruce and his father ever accomplished and stood for. And while watching Gotham burn, Bruce feels a sense of purpose again, knowing that without him his beloved city will surely fall.
But the truth isn’t that he is suddenly now needed. He was always needed, and the self-created feeling that he was not had been built on false thinking. All the while that Gotham was enjoying its low crime rate, Bane had been quietly amassing his army in the sewers. Appearances, as usual, were deceiving.
The Hindu-Buddhist worldview, increasingly supported by science, is of a vast, intricate web in which each strand is of vital importance to the integrity of the whole. Every creature, every element – indeed every mote of dust – has its place, with surface judgments of more or less important being illusory and deceptive (the loss of equilibrium in our bio-ecological system is just one of many real-life models that illustrate this ethos).
Remember this and periodically reaffirm it. Despite whatever it may feel like or look like on the surface, you are always needed by the world for your talents and gifts. Any sense that you are not is a self-created illusion.
We Need Our Struggles
We think we want to be free of all our struggles and problems but, in point of fact, too much success and lack of struggle can lead to complacency, stagnation and, deeper beyond that, even loss of purpose and despair. We need struggle. Not abject poverty, war, disease and atrocity, no. But the kind of manageable struggles that define us and give us purpose.
This is why Bane, in a way, is fortune’s gift to Batman. It shook him out of the slumber of stagnation and despair built on false premises and gave him a sense of purpose and identity again.
This is also why, in both ancient and modern myth, the Shadow archetype is often also a Teacher. When Bane says to Batman, while pummeling him senseless, “Victory has made you weak,” he isn’t just taunting him. He is also teaching him, not consciously or intentionally but at the level of archetypal symbolism.
As a different Bruce (Lee, not Wayne) once said, “Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”
Without the Rope
To reclaim his life’s purpose, Bruce must climb out of his pit of misery, literally and figuratively.
The pit offers an impossible choice in which the prisoners must choose between the nearly impossible climb out and risk dying or stay and rot. We even see a few try. They tie a safety rope to their bodies to save themselves if they fall, which they do.
When Bruce tries, he too cannot. Even though he is not afraid of death, he fails. Why?
A doctor in the prison, one of the film’s Mentor-archetype figures, shocks him with this revelation:
DOCTOR: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
DOCTOR: How can you be faster than possible, fight longer than possible, without the most powerful impulse…the fear of death? Make the climb…without the rope. Then fear will find you again.
Not fearing death, or even desiring it, while trapped in the pit of despair is a fallacy. For how is it that a healthy man of privilege who has everything can crave death while ones who have nothing desperately fight for their lives?
The answer is warped perspective.
Most of us who live in the world of modern comforts and privilege, even just middle-class privilege, have not actually faced threats like impending starvation or death by saber-tooth tiger such as our ancestors did. Such real threats forced them to be focused on the survival at hand, always, for distraction led to death. Although this doesn’t sound like an appealing life, it is actually liberating in a way.
Not all, but much of our modern neuroses are self-created and unnecessary. In the absence of real environmental threats that our bodies evolved to deal with, our minds create countless imaginary ones. On a daily basis, we worry and fret about everything imaginable. Our sympathetic nervous systems run on overtime, burning us out, sapping our vitality and biologically wired will to live.
But what would happen to our daily anxieties if an acute crisis were to strike? Severe illness. A critical shortage of money. Your home being invaded and your family attacked.
If you have ever experienced an acute crisis or emergency, as frightening as the situation may have been you may have also noticed a certain surreal sense of exhilaration and serenity as all other thoughts and “problems” vanished from your awareness and every ounce of will and energy was channeled into saving your life, your family, your home, whatever it may have been. This is why acute crisis can set our perspectives and priorities straight, and why it can be such a potent teacher.
In the film, when the other prisoners choose to stay in the pit or even to climb using the safety rope, the fear they feel represent our daily phantom fears. Beset as we are by these phantom fears, our usual options are stay the same and stagnate or try something and fail.
When the prison doctor speaks of the fear of death, he means literal death. Indeed, this is perhaps the most powerful human impulse besides sex and procreation (life). But death takes many forms.
For our purposes, “death” can symbolize whatever it is you think you are most afraid of – the worst that can happen – when you are trapped in your own personal pit of misery. Failure. Abandonment. Being unloved. Whatever it may be, don’t numb that fear with false assurances of safety (as the other prisoners in the film do with the rope) or with despair and a death wish (as Bruce does).
Some forms of death seem worse than others depending on the situation. In our modern lives, it’s not common or easy to feel the real threat of literal death so we have no true sense of it. We may fear other kinds of death more. Living a soulless, passionless life forever eking out a living, for example. Whatever it is, let it be your stand-in for “death.” Be scared of it. Feel the fear. Let it burn. Let it be the proverbial saber-tooth tiger that enables you to fight harder, run longer, than ever before.
Well, yes. But fear is an eternally perplexing, shape-shifting Trickster in that it is both enemy and ally. When it chronically controls your life, dictates every choice you make and causes you to feel weak and powerless, it is enemy. When it occasionally forces you to reach deep within into depths of ability that you did not even know you possessed, it is ally.
The trick is learning how to beneficially harness it during critical moments because so long as you are human, fear will not be permanently vanquished nor should it be. Fear tells you that you are still alive. If it is entirely absent, there are only three possibilities: you are spiritually liberated, you are in true despair (the kind that vanquishes all hope), or you are already dead.
This is how The Dark Knight Rises brings this mythical trilogy full circle, in the evolution of fear from enemy to ally.
And so Bruce climbs again. Without the rope. And as he reaches the critical moment, a flock of bats (his original phobia) fly past him, representing the return of fear. It is good fear. Real fear. He is alive again, with every cell and fiber in his body alert, unburdened by unnecessary thoughts or desires, and laser-focused on one purpose and one purpose only: make this jump.
When to Use This
This is a difficult concept to do justice to in a single essay, even a long one, for it is intertwined with both literal and figurative meanings and presents some paradoxical conundrums.
Safety is, of course, an important principle. In some situations, it is unconditionally the most important thing. But no principle is 100% true all of the time in all situations.
There is a certain wisdom in facing great danger and risk. When we set too many safety nets for ourselves, there can be an odd tendency for part of ourselves to hold back, to not fully reach into the deepest depths of our being where our reserves of strength lie. Consciously, we may think we’re trying our best, but subconsciously we can sabotage ourselves in all kinds of ways for all kinds of reasons.
Now, what if it were a do-or-die situation? Then, in the words of Yoda, we must “do or do not. There is no try.”
Here you must exercise careful discernment and practical wisdom because using this approach in all your endeavors would only lead to many mistakes, much heartache and burnout.
But sometimes there comes a point in your life when you just can’t take it anymore, when you can’t go on living a certain way, and you must take bold, decisive action for your life, sanity or well-being is riding on it. In such a case, a total absence of fear or too many small, unnecessary fears will both handicap you. What you need is one powerful, primal fear that seizes your whole body and mind. You might choose, therefore, to invoke this great and sacred fear by climbing “without the rope” (i.e., not allowing the option of failure by not allowing yourself any escape routes).
This doesn’t mean you will automatically succeed. You may fail. You may “die.” So it must be something so important that you’re willing to stake everything on it, not just a passing impulse (like “I want that job!” or “I want that girl!”).
Finally, remember that what is symbolized in a five-minute sequence in a film may take years in reality, so cultivate patience. Just because things don’t change right away doesn’t mean you’ve failed and that it’s time to quit. You can quit when you die. Or when you decide you’ve got absolutely nothing left (and you will often still have something left for even a half-dead cat can viciously defend her kittens).
On a closing, personal note, I myself have reached a critical junction in my life. And although circumspection and safety are ideals I value, in this case I have chosen to climb without the rope. It doesn’t mean storming ahead recklessly. Naturally, I must exercise good sense. But I must also be bold, accept that there are no guarantees and that I may fail. But due to this acceptance, this willingness to put everything I’ve got into it, to die for something I believe in (yes, even literally if need be), either way it will have been a personal triumph.
I am very afraid.
And I’ve never been more alive.
SUMMARY / KEY POINTS
- No matter how your life looks on the surface, there is always a need for you out there even if you can’t see it right now. Do not indulge in false despair.
- Do not desire to be free of all struggle and strife. They give you purpose.
- If, however, a situation is causing you acute suffering, then you need to do something about it or risk remaining in that pit indefinitely. Determine what it is about the situation you’re in that you do not like and what you want to change. Be careful not to let fickle impulses determine this. Is it an authentic desire that just doesn’t go away? Something you’re willing to die for? That’s how important it must be.
- Evaluate how much energy and resources you have. In The Dark Knight Rises, when Bruce is broken and trapped in the prison, his situation represents the worst-case-scenario in which you do not have much energy and resources. Be realistic and do not overestimate your abilities here. If you have been experiencing physical and/or mental distress for some time, chances are you don’t have much energy and resources anyway.
- Realize that since you have limited energy and resources you must quite simply put everything you have into the project. It should be a focused project, not multi-faceted, so that you don’t spread your thin resources even thinner.
- Eliminate as many distractions as possible without abandoning any important commitments you have already made (family, etc.). For example, if your job enables you to eat, don’t abruptly quit because you want to write and publish that novel within the next year. But do no more than would be required and professional of you. Don’t go out every weekend. Stop watching TV. Remember, it’s do-or-die.
- Climb without the rope. The more safety nets you leave for yourself, the greater the possibility that parts of yourself, subconsciously, will hold back and not fully tap into your reserves of strength.