When Love Outlasts Death: Janis Heaphy Durham’s “The Hand on the Mirror”

When Love Outlasts Death: Janis Heaphy Durham’s “The Hand on the Mirror” May 22, 2015

In the film Interstellar, Anne Hathaway, in her role as a space-exploring scientist, won me over in a key scene contemplating the nature of love.

In the film, Matthew McConaughey and Hathaway leave behind a decimated, dust storm-riddled Earth to seek habitable planets where the human race can go to save themselves from extinction. Other scientists have gone ahead of them to several promising planets. McConaughey, Hathaway, and their fellow astronaut must decide, based on the data these scientists have been sending back, which planet appears most promising for human civilization. Limited fuel and some funny business involving space and time (e.g., a several-hour jaunt out onto a water-covered planet actually took 27 years in Earth time) means they cannot visit all of the potentially promising planets. They must choose one.

In the key scene, Hathaway is arguing for one planet over the other. Turns out that she has a personal motive. The astronaut who already traveled to that planet, who might still be alive awaiting their arrival, was Hathaway’s lover. When McConaughey argues that Hathaway’s feelings are keeping her from making a rational decision, Hathaway responds:

Yes, and that [her love for the astronaut] makes me want to follow my heart. But maybe we’ve spent too long trying to figure this out with theory. Love isn’t something we invented, it’s observable, powerful. It has to mean something.

McConaughey says sure, love has social utility, creating bonds, ensuring that people will care for their children, etc. Hathaway comes back:

We love people who have died. Where’s the social utility in that? Maybe it [love] means something more, something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension we can’t consciously perceive.

I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we are capable of perceiving that’s capable of transcending dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that even if we can’t understand it yet.

Hathaway’s speech gets at the most fundamental belief that I hold, the belief that leads me to claim the Christian faith in spite of all the ways that Christians mess up and theology fails to give satisfying answers to our most difficult questions. I believe that love is more than brain chemistry, more than an evolutionary quirk that makes it marginally more likely for people to care for one another than kill each other. I believe that love is a real power, that love exercises real influence in the world—the way that gravity and weather and the earth’s rotation are real powers exercising real influence in the world—even if we can’t always see or understand how. That is why the scriptures say that God is love, why Jesus boiled all of God’s laws and desires for humankind into two simple commandments: Love God. Love one another.

I thought of Anne Hathaway’s speech about love transcending space and time—about love crossing even the boundary between life and death—when I read Janis Heaphy Durham’s memoir The Hand on the Mirror.

BC_TheHandontheMirror_1Durham is a journalist who experienced odd phenomena after the death of her husband, Max Besler. Clocks would randomly flip to 12:44—the time of Max’s death. Lights would flicker and go out. Rugs that had been in the home Durham shared with Max, now relocated to the home she shares with her current husband Jim, would move many inches in the course of a day, even with no one walking on them. The book’s title refers to powdery handprints that appeared on Durham’s bathroom mirrors several times, always right around the anniversary of Max’s death.

As Durham does research to try to explain these strange occurrences, she emphasizes her skepticism and journalistic desire to ask hard questions and dig deep. But much of her research ends up not quite satisfying. She recounts conversations with experts in such areas as paranormal activity or the idea of consciousness as a force that exists not solely in the brains of living people, but can continue to exist after death. These conversations provide much food for thought but little in the way of definitive explanation or scientific rigor. Durham seems to rely on experts’ impressive Ivy League credentials as proof that their ideas hold merit, when these credentials merely illustrate that very smart people can think and believe all sorts of things.

Durham never really tests alternate theories to explain the strange experiences, and tries a little too hard to read coincidences as signs that Max is still present after his death. She noticed the name “Max,” for example, painted on a boat’s hull in the background of a photo of her and her son in Italy. After attending a memorial service for her parents in Nebraska, she took her dog on a hike and came across a bridge called “The Max Bridge.” “I know Max is not an uncommon name, but still, what are the chances?” she asks. Later the same day, she drives by a sign for “Besler Industries.” “What was Max’s last name doing on a sign outside the only manufacturing plant in Cambridge [Nebraska]? This is a tiny town, and there are only 512 people named Besler out of about 314 million Americans. So this struck me as very unusual. Ultimately, I viewed both the Max Bridge and the Besler Industries sign as synchronicity. They were messages from Max and the spirit world that our connections with loved ones are not limited by place.”

I ended Hand on the Mirror wishing for fewer coincidences and powdery handprints, and more exploration of Durham’s core belief—one that I share with her and Anne Hathaway’s Interstellar character—that love is more than synapses firing, more than a practical way for people to give and receive the care we need to survive. I wanted to hear more about how Durham’s new interest in paranormal phenomena relates to her childhood faith. She states early in the book that she was “heavily influenced by my father, a Presbyterian minister deeply devoted to God and his faith. But,” she goes on, “like many people I had evolved in my thinking as I grew older. Now my faith was not as central to my daily life…” I wonder if, in casting Christianity as something to be left behind by an “evolved” mind, Durham also left behind a rich context for considering those odd handprints and coincidences that could have provided more satisfying avenues (more satisfying for me as a reader, anyway) for contemplating love, life, death, and eternity.

While many Christians see paranormal activity as a threat to orthodoxy, surely those of us who believe that a dead man rose to life again after three days in a tomb, that he both healed the sick and empowered his followers to do the same, that he fed thousands of people with a few fish and loaves of bread, and that he both sits at God’s right hand and is always, ever present to us when we call on his name—surely, we can make room in our world for the possibility that loved ones will reach out to us from beyond the grave, that the love we shared continues as a real and powerful force in the world.

Despite my quibbles with how Durham framed and explored the questions raised by her story, fundamentally, she believes as I do in love as a force whose power cannot be limited by mortal bodies, space, time, or death. She writes,

It wasn’t until I lost Max that I was confronted with the full magnitude of what love means. Max is teaching me that love transcends this world and the next. And even though the physical part of life is no longer attainable with him, the love remains a constant in my heart. I believe he carried this same love in his heart with him to the other side, to heaven or to whatever nonphysical plane in which he now exists. And I believe it’s this love that powered his ability to reach across from the spirit world to this world.

Yes. As Anne Hathaway’s character insisted in Interstellar, “maybe we should trust that even if we can’t understand it yet.”

This post is part of a Patheos Book Club on The Hand On the Mirror. Click here to learn more about the book and the author, and read other Patheos bloggers’ take on the book.



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