Are you Up in the Air?

Ryan Bingham in ‘Up in the Air’. Source: Splash Film

“Where are you from?”

As the airline captain quizzed, Ryan could only stare into the void, unsure of what response would be accurate. After a moment of stunned silence, he simply uttered, “Here”.

The 2009 movie, Up in the Air, can be seen, especially through its lead character, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney), as a depiction of the modern individual. We encounter the successful corporate exec, Bingham, who spends most of his days in the air, travelling across American cities firing company employees and giving motivational talks on how to live life shorn of restricting commitments. Disconnected from his own family (his sister mentions that he is dead to them), Bingham lived what he preached, until a casual relationship with another high flyer gradually draws him to seek something more enduring than a casual night in a hotel room. The disappointment and ensuing confusion triggers a profound questioning of his own identity and root. Hence his bemused response to the airline pilot. 

Writing in Variety magazine, Todd McCarthy describes it as “a slickly engaging piece of lightweight existentialism highlighted by winning turns from George Clooney and Vera Farmiga.”

Reflecting on the movie, the late Roger Ebert had this to say:

This isn’t a comedy. If it were, it would be hard to laugh in these last days of 2009. Nor is it a tragedy. It’s an observant look at how a man does a job.

And in reflecting upon the lead character, Ryan Bingham, Ebert observes:

Bingham loves his work. He doesn’t want a home. He doesn’t want a family. He gives self-help lectures on how and why to unpack the backpack of your life…At his funeral, people confess they never really knew him. Sitting in a first-class seat one day, asked where he lives, Bingham says, “Here.”

In traditional societies, in Africa and elsewhere, an individual found their roots in the community. Thus the family was central to all a person was and does. The family determined whom you married, what vocation you took up, or even where you lived. You never took a decision that would affect your family’s reputation; to do so was unthinkable. And your extended family literally raised even your children.

The modern world (some would extend this to the post-modern as well) has this altered. The individual is liberated from the restricting cage of community and set free to glide into the boundless skies.  Unfortunately, it failed to realize that even the eagle needs a place to land. It needs a place to call home. And not just a home for bed and meals, but a point to which they anchor everything, a foundation for opinions, beliefs, and choices. Every person needs a home in this full sense. We need something (or someone) which holds experiences, ideas and facts together and makes it all coherent. 

Unfortunately, the modern person is like a kite borne about by the breeze; the stronger the wind, the further away it flies. Unanchored to anything transcendent, they are at the mercy of cultural trends and fads, political winds, and the latest ideas.

Essentially, the modern individual is at a loss on three things: truth, meaning, and morality.

Without them, he cannot flourish. These are groundless without God. Recover God and they all follow. When we believe in God, we understand that the universe is real and truth is God’s perspective on things. Life is not a random collection of objects, feelings, and thoughts, but a complex and purposeful system designed by a God who is both wise and loving. And we understand morality as a reflection of this God’s own holy nature.

We are from God and find ourselves only in him. Thus our origin and destiny belong together. When we forget that we are from God, we lose our confidence in the future.

Thankfully, God remains the same. He need not adjust to us; he always (and still does) loves us. He even took on our nature to redeem us.

It is we who must descend from our existential flight and return to him.

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