In 1991, I read about the tragedy of famed rock musician Eric Clapton’s son, Conor. He was only four-years old when he fell out of a window on the 53rd floor of Clapton’s New York City high-rise. It was a calamity that could have been prevented, so the pain of Conor’s loss was especially intense.
Memories of that terrible tragedy came to mind as I watched Manchester By the Sea, a heart-wrenching story of a family coming to terms with a similar misfortune. Unlike conventional movie reviews, my “kosher movies” reviews sometimes contain “spoilers,” and Manchester By the Sea is one of those. Be forewarned.
Lee Chandler works as a janitor for a property management company in Boston. He is reclusive and does not enjoy small talk. We learn that his antisocial behavior has its origins in an incident that occurred in his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea a number of years earlier.
While Lee is drinking with friends at his home, his wife, Randi, asks Lee’s friends to leave because of the noise they are making, which prevents their three kids from sleeping. Lee, inebriated, builds a fire to warm up the house but forgets to place a screen in front of the fireplace. Lee then goes to the grocery store to pick up a few items. When he returns, he sees his house in flames. He is faced with overwhelming tragedy and guilt when he learns that all his children have perished in the fire.
Lee does not understand why he was not charged with a crime. In truth, the authorities see him as a tragic figure, who has suffered enormously. His kids are dead and he is responsible. To charge him with a crime seems pointless and so the authorities have few questions for him about how the fire started. Filled with guilt, he attempts to kill himself, but the police restrain him.
His marriage to Randi is now over. In time, he is able to find work, but daily life is devoid of meaning. He lives from one day to the next, but there is no joy in his life.
His mundane existence changes when his brother Joe, divorced from his alcoholic wife for many years, dies unexpectedly. Lee is appointed permanent guardian of Patrick, his 16-year-old son. Moreover, Lee is appointed trustee of Joe’s estate until Patrick comes of age.
Lee’s new responsibility as guardian is onerous and emotionally unsettling, for it requires Lee to move back to Manchester to take care of Patrick, a typical teenager who wants to live a typical teenage life without many boundaries. Moving back to Manchester also means that Lee will again see Randi, his ex-wife, who has moved on with her life, and be reminded daily of his negligence as a father who allowed his children to die in a fire.
In the cold light of day, Lee understands that he has to rise to the occasion and assume responsibility for his nephew Patrick. Their alliance is an uneasy one; but over a period of time, Lee finds meaning in helping Patrick become an adult. Lee finally accepts the reality that we have to move forward even when tragedies set us back.
Judaism views guilt as positive. However, even when we sin, the Sages tell us not to regard ourselves as sinners incapable of redemption. We make mistakes, but we can recover in some small ways and lead meaningful lives. Guilt should not paralyze us.
Rabbi Avi Shafran writes that we should regard guilt as an “engine of growth. To be sure, being consumed by guilt leaves a person paralyzed. But a modicum, or even a bit more, of facing our faults is a most salubrious thing. It’s essential to the process of true self-improvement.”
Shafran highlights one of the prayers that Jews say every morning upon awakening: “The soul that you placed in me is pure.” Shafran states that in spite of this purity, “our soul is easily stained. However, we would do well to try to restore it to its natural luster. And doing so, Maimonides informs us, first entails regret for actions, or inactions, we realize were wrong. There’s no way to take that initial step without confronting our misdeeds, and feeling guilty for them.”
Guilt can be redemptive if man comprehends its positive aspects. Indeed, guilt is good, but not when it overwhelms us. Manchester By the Sea reminds us that in the face of unspeakable tragedy and guilt, we still have to find a way forward to lead meaningful and productive lives.