Article
Culture
Politics
6 min read

When America presses in on you

A returning American feels the heat generated by contesting ‘realities'.

Jared Stacy holds a Theological Ethics PhD from the University of Aberdeen. His research focuses conspiracy theory, politics, and evangelicalism.

A runner passes a church and a flag in an America suburb, under billowing clouds.
Nick Jones/Midjourney.ai.

There’s a man. Running. My eyes snap into focus. Time slows - I catch his pace. Then, my eyes start widening. An odd feeling. Being forced into it. Seconds stretched out into minutes. Taking in more, looking for more, looking down that sidewalk, on a street corner in New Jersey. 

Before? I was sitting there. In the backseat of my Uber. Winding our way through New Jersey. And I’m sitting there, tired, mindlessly scrolling my phone until that moment. He’s there running.  

And I see him. T-shirt. Running shorts. And I’m sitting. And—a nervous flash—he’s running. Why?  

And my eyes adjust, widening, scanning, checking detail, and I’m almost seized. My mind shaking itself, coming online, no more automation. My consciousness catches up: “you’re in America,” I tell myself. 

Right. I’m not in Scotland. And that man is running. Here in New Jersey. In America. And I’m talking back to myself in this silent car. I’m watching him run. I’m asking why am I slowing this down? And—it flashes—“running from what?” 

And I catch up to myself. To what I was trying to say, that people in America run from shooters, too. A wave crashing, sitting in the back of the Uber, and look. Now I’m really looking. Not forced. But naming. There’s other pedestrians passing him, walking. Slowing. On the other side of the street— no fast movement. No screaming. No pops. 

I start breathing. I didn’t know I stopped. He’s out jogging. The automated safety check ends. The tranquility of tyranny resumes. I’m sitting in the back of an Uber. I make a note. Be more alert at the train station.  

— 

People ask me how the relocation back to America has been. And I don’t know what to tell them. There’s a wide gap between the visceral sense of it all pressing in on you, and more common—but also abstract—analysis.  

The experience of coming back has been oddly particular. I lived in Scotland for three years, and most of it was spent studying America. From that distance, the broad strokes of American life, the larger trajectories and dangers of our shared political decisions and religious extremism, well, they’re a bit clearer. 

But coming back, America presses in on you. And the only way of talking about that, maybe, is specificity. Kerouac was always good at articulating this. His America wasn’t the rise of the military industrial complex in the 50s. It was the road, the gas station on the way from Denver, it was jazz, the dim doorways of San Francisco bars. I’m thinking of Kerouac, but also Langston Hughes. Poets and artists who in their own time, held a mirror up to America, helped us move from the “I” to the “we” as Steinbeck said. 

We’re all asking a version of “what’s wrong in America?” (And, do keep asking.) But to ask that question often assumes the broadest strokes, the ones that are most clear from a distance. Which means they are, in one at the same time, the most abstract.  

These realities are everywhere, and no where. They are the air we breathe. They appear to the privileged as “logical” and to the powerless as “inevitable.” 

Asking after democracy, after the election, and the increasingly nebulous “the church” — I’m convinced that answering “what’s wrong in America?” in the biggest of terms is leading me to (wrongly) believe that responsibility lies among the gargantuan free-floating concepts which we use to narrate our world. As if solving the “crisis of democracy” is a conceptual problem. When in reality, it is concrete, and involves more than coalition building or political activism.  

Why more? Because the choices Americans have made over the last 10 years originate from imaginations which limits the scope and scale of what is possible. This is what I mean by “America presses in on you.” 

Coming back to America has made this clear. I’m more aware than ever that we can produce good answers and generate compelling analysis about America without ever asking in what way these answers or analysis are sharp enough, concrete enough to puncture the bubbles of social reality in which people choose to live and in some cases are forced to live. 

These realities are everywhere, and no where. They are the air we breathe. They appear to the privileged as “logical” and to the powerless as “inevitable.” They press in on us all in their own way. 

In some cases, they dull our senses. We say, “as long as our Amazon deliveries continue, as long as the streaming services work.” In some cases, they don’t just press in on us, but press down and perpetuate injustice. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked, “where are the responsible ones?” 

The visceral shock of return is ongoing. And it hits me in strange ways, on Uber rides and in worship. American life is everywhere and I’m seeing it with different eyes.

Do I care about democratic machinery? Yes. Am I concerned about whether or not the church is, in fact, the church, and not a gear in a partisan machine? Yes. But I’m increasingly convinced that responsible living in the American situation becomes most clear, most evident as we consider the large in terms of the small. 

Responsibility emerges with attention paid to the concrete and intimate. January 6 is the subject of my dissertation. But before that, in the months leading up to January 6, I was a pastor just 40 miles from DC. For me, January 6 was a local event. That particularity, that specificity, is a window into a concrete responsibility.  

And now, back in this same community, I found myself distracted in a church this weekend. The man in front of me raised his hands in worship, revealing a revolver hanging on his belt. What America is this? But also, what Christianity is this? 

The visceral shock of return is ongoing. And it hits me in strange ways, on Uber rides and in worship. American life is everywhere and I’m seeing it with different eyes. And I wonder what it will take to break the spell of our most cherished illusions, of a certain type of freedom — one that tells us it is Christian to raise our hand in surrender to a god who we say is loving enough to save the world, but seemingly not strong enough to deliver us from our evil. 

In the end, perhaps it’s best to say that it’s been proof of a good ruining. After all, we’ve experienced nothing short of a conversion, a move closer towards peace, towards hope, that unsettles all our strategies of security and comfort underwritten by violence and oppression. This is the kingdom of Heaven. Something Jesus announced that continues to unsettle and disrupt the likes of T.S. Eliot who put it well in Journey of the Magi

We returned to our places, these 

Kingdoms, 

But no longer at ease here, in the old 

        dispensation, 

With an alien people clutching their gods 

I should be glad of another death. 

Review
Culture
Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.