Back to the syllabus

Ordinary People


The film starts out with the healing majesty of song….Conrad singing in the choir.  For those of us who suffer from any one or a combination of the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, we need to find a way of dealing with the pain.  Music is one of a number of healing forces that we can employ.  Others are dance, laughter, great poetry and literature, and….yes….films can be a healing force.


For Conrad, the psychiatrist is a healing force, however, an even more healing force is the young lady that reaches out to him.  All of us can elect to heal others.  All of us have the power to care about those around us, to empathize with their plight, to reach out.  Alcoholics Anonymous and other self-help groups are examples of this.


Conrad, reluctantly, hesitantly, decides to see the psychiatrist.  He tells him that he wants to be more in control so people won't worry about him. 


His mother, Beth, must be in control. The film shows you this as she lines up the linens in the drawer, in the fact that the family has never had a pet (too messy, too uncontrollable)---the closest they ever had was a pigeon that hung around their house for awhile.  In the car ride to the party the father says: "Let's go to the movies."  Beth's response is: "Don't be negative."  For her husband, the change in plans is not negative, it is unpredictable.  Beth wants everything to be predictable, controllable, cautious.


Beth does not want to think about anything being wrong.  She never visited her son when he was in the hospital after his suicide attempt. Instead she went on a trip.  Conrad calls her on this in one stormy scene when he says that she would have visited if it were her favorite child Buck.  Beth's response was that Buck wouldn't have been in the hospital!  She wants this all to be a private matter.  She has no intention of going to the psychiatrist and is very angry at her husband when he mentions to a friend at the party that Conrad is seeing a psychiatrist.


For Conrad the months in the hospital after his suicide attempt were easy because no one hid anything there.  At home everything is carefully concealed, feelings are never allowed to be openly expressed.


The illusion of control is the illusion of ordinary people.  They think that if they can only control things, that their fears, their emotions, their feelings will somehow magically go away.  What they tend not to understand is that those fears are the forces below and behind alcoholism, cancer, and a thousand other illnesses that will eat away at them.


When Beth breaks a plate she tells her mother that it can be saved, that it can be put back the way it once was.  That is what she wants, a return to wholeness, a return to before the problems arose.  What she fails to understand is that the past was not perfect.  That a life without openness to feelings, a life dominated by control issues, denies people the creative opportunities and the richness that life can offer.


However, being open to feelings comes at a price.  Conrad and the psychiatrist talk about this.  Conrad says that: "When I let myself feel, I feel lousy."  The psychiatrist acknowledges this price, however, holding the feelings down exacts an even greater price over time.  That's the key, "over time", because humans are often unwilling to engage in delayed gratification when the immediate price of exploration is pain producing.  When Conrad quits the swim team, his friend asks him why.  He responds that it is boring.  The friend says: "That's no reason."  The inference is that feelings should not be what we use to make decisions.  The other swimmers may find the swim team boring, but they go on doing it.  Conrad is making choices, starting to pay attention to his feelings.  Since he doesn't tell his parents that he has quit, his mother finds out from a friend and becomes very angry.  If you need to be in control, then you have to know what everyone is doing.  She calls him a liar and accuses him of wanting to hurt her.  He angrily responds by throwing the accusation right back at her.  The father tries to calm things down and tells Conrad to stop.  Conrad tells him: "You tell her to stop it!"  He describes his father as reacting to life as if everything is "jello and pudding"---no sharp edges, soft and sweet, no confrontations if you please. 


Fortunately, hope is renewed for Conrad with the new girl in his life.  We see him happily walking and singing.  But then his friend from the hospital commits suicide and it triggers a crisis for him.  A crisis is always an opportunity.  For Conrad the opportunity becomes a major breakthrough---with the psychiatrist's help he begins to see his mother in a clearer light.  At first he says: "She can't love me."  But, the psychiatrist helps reframe that by saying: "She can't love you enough."  Conrad begins to understand that he has to forgive his mother---that he has to forgive himself.  He has to get past his anger at Buck for letting go and at himself for surviving.  Feelings are scary, but if you can't feel pain you can't feel anything.


Beth handles superficial relationships very well.  She enjoys parties and has a number of friends.  After 21 years of marriage she was content with her life and simply wants to return to the way things were.  Her husband finally begins to see her in a new light.  He is upset with the fact that Beth worried about what he wore to the funeral.  She didn't cry at the funeral for their son---it was only Beth and Conrad that didn't cry.  The father sees them, Conrad and Beth, as being alike.  He sees Conrad as not needing the structure that Buck needed.  He sees his wife as cautious, determined, but not strong.  He asks her: "Do you really love me?"  Her response is: "I feel the way I always have about you."   He realizes that all would be OK if it hadn't happened, but that Beth can't handle mess, maybe she can't handle love.  He wonders if perhaps she buried the best of herself with Buck.  He says: "I don't know who you are.  I don't know if I love you anymore."  Beth's response is to go upstairs and pack……as she starts to do so, she almost breaks down…..almost opens up to her feelings….almost.


This film is a challenge to us all.  A challenge to ordinary people.  The challenge is to become more open to our feelings.  More whole.  Stronger through awareness.  This is the challenge that poets and artists have given us for a thousand years and more.  It is the same challenge that God also gives to us.


It can be a hard journey to accept the challenge.  It can seem easier to stay in control; to keep the feelings pushed down.  The immediate results of starting on the journey are not always pleasant.  But, the alternative is to fail the test of your heart; to not open your soul to the great depths of a life lived with the richness and fullness of feelings.


If you reflect back on the Meryl Streep interview, you can see that an important and essential part of what makes her a great actor is that she is willing to touch all of her emotions, to go there and feel them, to be one with them.


When you work with children you see how expressive of their feelings they are.  Tragically, the socialization process tends to force those feelings down.  One of the greatest opportunities we have as we gain knowledge of ourselves is to return to our childhood.  The journey back to your childhood and the emotions you once were free to express can be a wondrous journey.  Good luck on your journey.  May you learn to express and enjoy all of the joyous feelings that are within.

Back to the syllabus