Stronger (2017), directed by David Gordon Green

strongerA few weeks ago, I had hip replacement surgery. Over the past several years, my hip has degenerated. I have moved from becoming an avid runner to an avid walker, to a part time cyclist and swimmer, to a struggling walker who walks at an extremely slow pace. When friends told me about the benefits of hip replacement surgery, at first I was reluctant; but as my hip continued to get worse, I felt I had little choice if I wanted to improve the quality of my life. And so I had the surgery. But there was one problem: I did not fully grasp the complicated and arduous road to rehabilitation, which would take 4 to 6 weeks.

The complicated rehabilitation road is a central theme in Stronger, the profanity-laden true story of Jeff Bauman, a working-class Bostonian who tragically lost both of his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Jeff is not running in the race. He is there at the finish line to welcome his girlfriend Erin who is running to raise money for the hospital at which she works. In the days after the blast, he is hailed as a hero when he identifies Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the bombers. In truth, Jeff is uncomfortable with the mantle of hero and his mental state is fragile. The realization that his life is forever changed and physically compromised is a haunting and painful reality that is not easy for him to accept.

Patty, Jeff’s alcoholic mother, pushes Jeff to do interviews and basks in the refracted glory of her son’s celebrity. But she is weak emotionally and begins to become an enabler of Jeff’s drinking and lackadaisical approach to his rehabilitation. This leads to confrontations between Patty and Erin, each of whom has a different take on what is best for Jeff.

Things change when Jeff meets Carlos, the man who pulled him out of the carnage and saved his life. Carlos relates a sad story in which two of his sons died. One is a Marine who lost his life in Iraq; the other committed suicide. Carlos, a man with overwhelming guilt, confides to Jeff that rescuing him enabled him to find a measure of peace after his personal tragedies. Hearing Carlos’ narrative gives Jeff a sense of what his mission in life should be. He realizes that his desire to live in spite of personal tragedy gives people hope and inspiration, and he gracefully listens to many people who share stories of how they have been positively influenced by him.

Rehabilitation is slow, whether physical or spiritual. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a Torah scholar and physician specializing in addiction, uses the model of the 12-step program for alcohol addiction to apply to the general process of changing negative behaviors. Several of the twelve steps, in particular, occur in the rehabilitation of Jeff Bauman. (1) He recognizes that his life has become unmanageable. (2) He makes a fearless, honest moral inventory of himself. (3) He admits his mistakes. (4) He is willing to make amends to anyone he has harmed.

Once Jeff recognizes that his life is out of control, he begins to put it back together. When he realizes that Erin loves him in spite of his physical disability, he understands that he has not treated her with respect and kindness. When he finally apologizes to her for his insensitive behavior, they can start their relationship anew.

Things do not change overnight for Jeff. Changing his behavior will take years just as his physical therapy will take much time and concerted effort. Stronger reminds us that only through hard work over an extended period of time can we indeed make ourselves into better men.

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