Every once in a while, movies can instantly transport you to another place and another time in an instant of cinematic magic. There is a scene at the beginning of Dances With Wolves that does that for me.
The Civil War is raging and there is stalemate between the Union and the Confederate armies, positioned on opposite sides of a field. Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, whose leg is badly injured, realizes that his leg will be amputated, and so he attempts to end his life nobly by riding his horse in front of the Confederate lines where he will be an easy target. Contrary to his expectation, they shoot at him but do not hit him. It is a poetic scene of transcendent beauty as he rides his horse with his arms flying outwards facing possible death.
Dunbar’s brave act rallies the Union troops who storm the Confederate line of defense. His heroism gets the attention of a general who dispatches his personal surgeon to tend to Dunbar and save his leg. As a reward for his service, he is given Cisco, the horse that he rode in battle, and his choice of a new post. Dunbar chooses to serve on the barren frontier, and so begins his odyssey of personal discovery far away from the fields of war.
Dunbar’s new post is desolate, but he relishes the beauty and quiet of his new home. He begins to repair it and waits for reinforcements to arrive. In truth, his whereabouts are unknown, and in time he is discovered by a tribe of Sioux Indians who are camped nearby. He forms a friendship with Kicking Bird, the tribe’s medicine man, and gradually gains acceptance by the Indians who appreciate his help in finding buffalo for them to hunt for food and clothing.
As I watched the film, which is epic in visual proportion and in theme, I thought about what it takes to become part of a new society. If you want to be welcome, you have to go out of your way to meet people, to share in their pain and in their joy, and you have to learn their language. Realizing that his life of isolation is going nowhere, Dunbar decides to leave his post to get to know the Indians. He does not wait for them to come to him. Once in their environment, he accepts the Indians’ initial suspicion of him, and tries sincerely to understand their way of life. It is only when he masters their language that he becomes fully integrated with them.
Reflecting on my own experience as a new immigrant, Dunbar’s journey provides a good model of adjustment to a new world. I recall an Israeli telling me when I first arrived to introduce myself to my neighbors. Don’t be reclusive and stay home or only associate with Anglos. Such a path is insular and will not connect you with Israeli society. Rabbi Ezra Bick, quoting the great medieval sage Maimonides, observes that the person who separates himself from the community, no matter how great his personal qualities, has cut himself off from the “fullness of the image of God,” for it is only within the community that man can realize his true spiritual potential. Maimonides writes: “One who divorces himself from the ways of the community, even though he has not transgressed transgressions, but is only separated from the congregation of Israel, and does not perform good deeds together with them nor enter into their troubles nor fast on their fast-days, but goes about his way as one of the people of the earth, and as though he were not one of them – he has no portion in the World-to-Come.”
Dances With Wolves implicitly reminds us that it is only within the community that we can truly actualize our potential. John Dunbar understands this when he identifies with the Sioux tribe that has embraced him. Together with others, he finds himself.