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The scope and nature of suffering in 'Lion' and life

Recently, I finally got around to watching Lion, the Oscar-nominated film based on the true story of Saroo Brierley who, as a five-year-old boy, is accidentally separated from his older brother while scavenging in trains in India.

After falling asleep on a bench at one of the stations, Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar) boards another train hoping to find his brother but ends up 1600 kilometers away in Calcutta. Illiterate, Saroo doesn’t know his last name or his mother’s name and he can't speak the local language, so he ends up spending harrowing weeks trying to survive on the streets. He eventually ends up in an orphanage, where he’s adopted by Sue and John Brierley (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) along with another boy from India, and they both grow up in Australia. In his 20s, haunted by his past, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) begins a six-year search for his birthplace, eventually locating the town he grew up in using Google Earth and reuniting with his birth mother.

The film definitely deserved its nominations. It is an extremely powerful story, which moved me to tears more than once—and I was particularly affected by way the story reflects the scope and nature of suffering.

A good chunk of the film focuses on Saroo’s childhood experience in Calcutta, where he endures loneliness and despair as he flees sexual predators and gangs while trying to find food and shelter. At the end of the film, we’re told 80,000 children go missing in India each year. That’s mind-boggling. My heart breaks before the weight of it.

Contemplating the scope of that kind of suffering can be paralyzing. It can leave us thinking there is nothing we can do—or that whatever we do is but a drop in an unquenchable, horrific ocean.

At the Misiso Alliance gathering earlier this month, N.T. Wright spoke about the way the Holy Spirit leads us to enter “the dark and suffering parts of the world.” As the Spirit leads us through the wilderness of this middle part of the biblical story towards new creation at the end, we ourselves are walking models of that recreation, he says, sharing and bearing the pain of the world along the way, reflecting a future glory here and now, bringing and being good news and light to the places that need it—just like Jesus.

We shouldn’t be surprised when we are led into the birth pangs and groans of the world, Wright says.

“God doesn’t save us from the world,” he says, “but saves us for the world.”

This kind of sacrificial love that enters whole-heartedly into suffering is strongly echoed in the film by Sue in a powerful performance by Kidman. Saroo visits Sue at a low point, when she is anguished over his adopted brother, who suffers from severe mental health issues resulting from childhood trauma.

“I’m sorry you couldn’t have your own kids,” Saroo tells her.

Sue is dumbfounded. “What are you saying?”

“We… we weren’t blank pages, were we?” Saroo explains. “Not like your own would have been. You weren’t just adopting us but our past as well. And I feel like we’re killing you.”

Sue looks at him with a gentle fierceness. “I could have had kids,” she says, holding his eyes.

Saroo is stunned. “What?”

“We chose not to have kids,” Sue says. “We wanted the two of you. That’s what we wanted. We wanted the two of you in our lives. That’s what we chose.”

Saroo is speechless. His eyes fill with tears.

“That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with you dad. Because we both felt that the … the world has enough people in it. Have a child, that wouldn’t have guaranteed we would make anything better but to take a child that’s suffering like you boys were, give you a chance in the world… that’s something.”

“I bet you never imagined it being this hard,” Saroo says with a small smile.

“It’s not a matter of hard. It’s not a mat—,” Sue breaks off, and sighs, searching for words. 

“There’s only one path for me, that’s how I think it.”

As believers, we have only one path as well. The scope of suffering in this world—be it millions of refugees languishing in camps or tent settlements or millions of children living on the streets of India—doesn’t have the power to deter us from walking straight into it. It is part of who we are. It is in our spiritual DNA.

The hardest parts of the film for me to watch were Saroo’s suffering as a child and Sue’s suffering as a mother. It’s worth noting that their pain was compounded by their isolation. Saroo’s suffering on the streets as child was increased by the absence of any caring or protective presence. No one stepped in to help him—and those that did only wanted something from him.

But we can also cause deep pain to those who love us when we refuse to share our own suffering with them. Saroo’s brother constantly isolated himself from his parents because he didn’t want to cause them pain, and Saroo kept his search for his birth mother from Sue because he thought it would cause her pain as well. In truth, their attempts to protect their mother—who simply wants to be present with them—only made her feel isolated and helpless.

At the end of the conversation above, Sue tells Saroo, “You don’t talk to me anymore. I need you.” It is a pivotal moment for Saroo, after which he shares the rest of his journey--wherever it may end--with her.

The deep parent-love conveyed by Sue is powerful. Such love does not hesitate to enter into and share the suffering of the beloved.

That is what God does for us. And that is what we—by our very begotten nature and vocation—do for our neighbor, whether right next door or half a world away.