My son-in-law served in the Marines during the Gulf War. Sent to Kuwait, he was probably the only Orthodox Jew serving there. When he returned safe and sound, thank God, I had several discussions with him about the most important thing he learned from his military experience. He told me it was unforgettable and he valued it because it gave him an intense appreciation of every moment of life. He became more attuned to the presence of Godliness in the world, more attentive to the everyday miracles of life. It is this awareness of the preciousness of every moment of life that is at the core of Hereafter, a film that has something to say about the afterlife, but has more to say about how we lead our lives. Do we pay attention to our life experiences or do we simply go through life on auto-pilot?
Hereafter tells three stories of emotional crisis. One is about a woman who survives a tsunami after having a near-death experience. Another is about a young boy, Marcus, who loses his twin brother, Jason, and another about a man who has a childhood illness leading to a near death experience, which leaves him with the ability to communicate with the dead. The stories originate in different locations, Paris, London, and San Francisco; but they all converge in London at the story’s end where all the main characters have arrived, suggesting perhaps that a hidden divine hand is guiding their respective fates.
In Hereafter, things happen which can easily be explained as natural events, but which can also be explained as supernatural. It depends on how you view life. Is it ordinary or extraordinary? As if to punctuate this juxtaposition, George Lonegan, the psychic played by Matt Damon, goes to sleep each night listening to audiotapes of the novels of Charles Dickens. His depiction of everyday Victorian life emotionally grounds George who is haunted by his psychic gift that prevents him from leading a conventional life. The scene depicts the normal human ambivalence between perceiving the world as the unfolding of natural processes and perceiving the world as a constant revelation of the miraculous.
Another scene portrays this dissonance between natural and supernatural perceptions of the world. The surviving brother, Marcus, seeks to communicate with his dead brother. On one day he goes to the underground London train station to travel to someone who he thinks can help him with his task. As the train enters the platform, his hat, which belonged to his dead brother, falls off his head. He struggles to retrieve it as it is trampled by passers-by. When he finally reclaims it, he misses his train. Seconds later, there is an explosion on the departing train and Marcus miraculously escapes death. Was it a coincidence, what is God intervening, was it his dead brother protecting him? The answer is ambiguous but the question is not, for it presupposes a willingness to see the world without preconceptions of why things happen.
Often, there is often a sign over the ark in traditional synagogues on which is inscribed the classic line from King David’s Psalms: “God is always before me.” It is a passage that resonates with me. It reminds me never to take things for granted. It reminds me to pay attention to life, to see God’s handiwork always in front of me. Focusing on the maxim, I am reminded to look for God’s hidden hand behind everyday events. What are His messages? Am I listening? Am I paying attention?