This weekend my girls and I watched Nim’s Island, and I was struck by something. I’ll admit that it doesn’t come across as a very deep or serious movie. In fact, it’s meant to be light and fluffy, ideal for children who scare easily (perfect for my girls, come to think of it). The piratey bad guys are downright corny and cliche, and half the time I found myself expecting Captain Feathersword to pop out and sing one of the songs from The Wiggles soundtrack. But slipped into this children’s film was a fantastic illustration of how and why gods are made, and why they finally leave us in the end.
Alexandra Rover (played by Jodie Foster) is a multiphobic recluse who writes adventure stories featuring her fearless and rugged alter ego, Alex Rover (played by Gerard Butler). Young Nim Rusoe (Abigail Breslin) lives on a remote tropical island with her father, a biologist who gets stranded out in the open sea, leaving Nim to fend for herself on the island. Because Alexandra needs help grasping the particulars of living on a remote island for her next novel, she strikes up an email correspondence with Nim just in time to learn that the poor child is completely alone on the island except for the company of her animal friends. Alexandra becomes overwhelmed by concern for Nim’s safety, so she embarks on a long and perilous journey to reach Nim’s remote island to give her whatever assistance she can manage.
There’s just one major problem. Alexandra is paralyzed by fear of virtually everything. That’s a large part of the reason why she writes adventure novels in the first place. Since she’s too afraid to accomplish much of anything in the real world, she spends her days imagining adventures she would never have the nerve to go on herself. In fact, Alex Rover is a projection of everything she wishes she could be. He is an idealized foil to all of her own personal shortcomings. That’s his raison d’etre. He exists to compensate for everything she lacks. It’s too bad he’s a completely fictional character. He has no real existence outside of Alexandra’s own head, or outside the heads of her adoring readers.
But she does talk to him, and he talks to her. She supplies both sides of this conversation, mind you. But he keeps her company and nudges her along, giving her the moral support she needs to make it through each day. It reminds me of how Hobbes, the stuffed tiger, keeps Calvin company through his many misadventures. As a kid I always thought of Hobbes as being just as alive as Calvin, but then one day it occurred to me that every line of conversation between them came from Calvin’s own highly imaginative brain. Incidentally, that completely changed how I read it whenever Hobbes disgusted Calvin by expressing amorous feelings for Susie Derkins, whom Calvin hated, but Hobbes adored.
Letting Go of Alex Rover
Alexandra sets out on her harrowing journey to find Nim and must overcome every one of her darkest fears in order to do so. She remains a fearful and vulnerable person, but her trials force her to reach down inside herself and pull out a courage and strength she didn’t even know she had. Finally, as she’s about to complete her journey to Nim’s island, her daring hero tells her he has to leave. He’s going away, because Alexandra no longer needs him anymore. She objects and insists that he cannot go because she needs him, but the reality is that she herself has accomplished everything in her adventure. She had to become the hero of her own story. Any help that she received from Alex was provided by some hidden part of her own psyche. The moment she realized that was the moment she finally became a whole person, a grown up ready to face the world despite her many fears and shortcomings.
Alexandra wasn’t the only one who needed to learn this lesson, however. Young Nim had been eagerly awaiting her fabled hero because she, too, had idealized Alex Rover. She relied on Rover’s creator to know who he was and what he could do for her, so when the real Alex Rover showed up and turned out to be a clumsy scared woman who required just as much help as she did, Nim was deeply disappointed. Nim even had to save Rover’s life the first moment they met, which prompted her to complain that her idealized hero wasn’t anything like this helpless woman who had come to her island. “He saves people! He doesn’t need saving!” Nim, too, had to let go of her idealized hero and become for herself the hero in her own story. Alex Rover only existed as a kind of archetype for both of them, a model of courage and self-confidence which they in time had to learn to become for themselves.
The Human Race Grows UpI think this story beautifully illustrates the story of the human race, which created a hero to save itself from the many dangers, toils, and snares of life only to one day realize that it must become the hero of its own story. Just as Alex Rover was a rugged and self-sufficient projection of all the weaknesses and shortcomings of a frail and multiphobic writer, so I think our gods have always been projections of ourselves, or rather of what we wish we could be. Because we feel weak, they are strong. Because we feel powerless over nature, they control it. Because we make mistakes, they never do. And because we don’t understand how things have come to be, they are responsible for making everything we see, including even ourselves. They are the projected embodiment of everything we are not, and just like Alexandra, we come to depend on them despite the fact that we create our creators in our own inventive brains. Sometimes they personify our own traits and share our own moral shortcomings. But sometimes they transcend those things as well, showing us the way forward out of our own faults like beacons of moral perfection.
There comes a time, however, that we must learn to embrace the reality that no one is going to save us from the challenges we face. No one, that is, but ourselves. And no, I don’t mean that any one of us as an individual has the resources to accomplish absolutely anything we wish; I mean that as a species, as a race of people, we have within ourselves the wherewithal to solve our own problems and make a way through the challenges ahead of us. We must become the heroes of our own story, which requires the realization that anything we have previously attributed to our imaginary companions was really done by us. Whether good or bad, we must own what has happened and we must learn to take responsibility for the way things are. We also must realize that if anyone is going to save us from the dangers that lie ahead, it’s going to have to be us.
For centuries the Christian church has been fond of saying that we have a “God-shaped hole” in our hearts which only the Christian God can fill. The reality is just the opposite. I think it’s far more likely that we have a hole-shaped God. The deities we imagine are the projection of all of our hopes and fears, and they personify everything we wish we could be and do. That’s why growing up I was always taught to see God as everything I need. Back in my youth group days I was even taught to take Psalm 23, aka the Shepherd’s Psalm, and rewrite it to fit my own life. In retrospect I cringe at the inane things we would write. “The LORD is my coach; I shall not miss a practice…” Ugh, I’m just gonna stop right there. We came up with countless parallels and rewrites and we had fun reading them aloud to the rest of our youth group. But this exercise perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about.
Do you need a comforter? Well, God is that for you. Do you need a guide? Well, God is that for you as well. Do you need a disciplinarian? Guess what? He’s that, too. He’s also a friend, a lover, a therapist, a teacher, and an advocate. Anything you need, that’s what he will be for you. Amazingly, this one person is the embodiment of everything you could possibly need. Which is why it should have been obvious to us that we are making him up as we go. It’s all just too convenient. Of course we would imagine that behind the vast impersonal universe there is a caring, loving person who takes interest in the smallest details of our lives. Of course! Isn’t that exactly what you would expect people to imagine?
But just like in Nim’s Island, there comes a point at which we realize we no longer need our gods. We made them in the first place, we just didn’t know it. We worshiped the inventions of our own minds and hands. They served us well for a time, illustrating the things we wished we could be and do. But now it’s time to say goodbye to them. It’s time for us to become our own saviors, because in reality that’s all we’ve ever had. Our imaginary friends served their purpose, but now it’s time for them to leave us. Now their greatest use is to remind us of where we’ve been, and in some ways to show us what we ourselves must become. We must become the heroes of our own story.