On Manchester by the Sea: How do we carry our despair?

I rewatched Manchester by the Sea this week. I first watched it with my husband and brother over Christmas in sunny Southern California, and they both hated it - significantly reducing my ability to love it, which I figured I actually did.

So I rewatched it this week, after reading long reviews talking about Manchester's apt description of white American despair.

Captivated, I watched again.

The inability to express emotion.

The self-medicating with alcohol.

The grim determination to work.

The insensitivity of those around.

The leper effect of tragedy.

The unequal parceling out of despair and coping mechanisms.

I felt the heavy weight of Lee Chandler's despair.

If you haven't seen Manchester and don't want a spoiler, I'd stop reading here. But I'd argue you can still read this and enjoy the movie immensely, even if you haven't seen it yet.

Lee Chandler is the actor played by Casey Affleck: a hard-working Boston-area handyman impervious to the flirtations and intrusions of those around him; likely to start a bar fight in a moment's notice.

I'd seen and met men like Lee Chandler before. And sometimes you wonder: what's with that guy? Why isn't he nicer?

Of course as a woman there is something alluring about the inaccessible, emotionally absent man.

But Chandler is more than your average jerk. He is carrying something invisible and weighty within him and on top of him, and it's crushing him year after year.

He is carrying immense despair.

You find out later in the movie that, after a night of partying - drinking and drugs - with his friends in his basement, Lee Chandler lit a fire upstairs in the fireplace, near his kids' rooms, and then walked down the road 20 minutes to the convenience store to buy more beer.

He remembers midway that he may not have put the screen on the fireplace, but he ignores it and keeps walking.

He returns home, arms full of beer, to see his home ablaze. His wife was rescued, passed out but alive. His children burned when the furnace blew, and rescuers had no chance to get them.

Later at the police office, Lee Chandler lunges for an officer's gun and tries to kill himself.

After this, he remains - alive but empty. He and his wife divorce as she blames him for the death of their children. He doesn't disagree, and he never finds a way to deal with his immense guilt, grief and shame.

His small, tight-knit New England town shuns him - as if tragedy is contagious and Lee Chandler must be shunned so that it doesn't spread. Their fear - their inability to love - tears what little life Lee Chandler has left away. Even the love of his brother and his nephew can't keep him in town, and he escapes to a basement apartment outside Boston: friendless, alone, miserable. A penance of sorts, except it's a penance that will end only with death.


Watching Lee Chandler's grief - broken occasionally by everyday moments of humor and lightness - I was struck by how ordinary it all seemed. Life in the face of grief marches on. There is still grocery shopping, tooth brushing, arranging for burial of a corpse, funeral services, teenage misbehavior, showering, bills, yogurt for breakfast.

I was struck too by the ways that privilege - or lack thereof - intensifies grief, tragedy and despair.

Lee Chandler mentions that he lit the fire because their old central heat damaged his wife's sinuses. A tragedy in an old house. No money or resources for grief counseling or mantras. Only work and shame.

I was struck by the contrast between Lee Chandler's blue-collar masculine grief and the affluent grief of Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO whose husband, Dave Goldberg, died suddenly at age 47 due to a heart condition that led him to fall from a treadmill and suffer head trauma.

Sandberg's resulting book, Option B, is a follow-up to her acclaimed Lean In, giving tools to women in the workplaces. Option B is about her immense grief and the ways she and her two young children learn to cope.

Sandberg is candid about her relative privilege, even in the face of extreme tragedy. No one envies her loss, and the prospect of raising children without her husband and their father. Yet Sandberg shares that even this crushing blow is cushioned: by company policies that gave her time to grieve, by counselors and mental health professionals, by a loving community of friends who aren't worried her loss will "spread" to them. No, it wasn't perfect for Sandberg - and she likely still begins every morning in grief. But she had a shot.

Lee Chandler had much less of a shot. Men in particular suffer greatly from grief. Women have been socialized not to be angry, but we're less likely to be punished for crying. Men have often been taught that "boys don't cry," and it's inappropriate to express weakness.

As a pastor, ministering to men and women who've lost their spouses, I've often found it's much harder for men to seek help in the midst of their grief. In my last congregation we led a grief group. The attendees were usually all female: despite many men in the church having lost loved ones in the same time period.

Lee Chandler was also white, and white American culture too has typically shunned extravagant displays of grief or sorrow. White people are expected to be stoic in the face of tragedy: quiet and composed.

For white men, violence has long been one of the only accepted modes of showing emotion. It's no surprise Lee Chandler's emotional release comes in unprovoked bar fights.


What does any of this have to do with you and me?

Originally I thought I'd ask you: how do you carry your despair?

For we all have despair in our lives. Unexpected deaths. Diseases. Heartbreak. Abuse. Addiction. Shame. Unresolved grief.

But as I looked back at my life - and perhaps if you look at yours - you find your despair is not as crushing as Lee Chandler's. You cannot relate to his crushing despair. You've been sad, but you recovered. You do not relate to his consuming sadness. You find it depressing and confusing. You do not want to live like that. You do not want to know someone like that. You do not want to live in a world where things like that happen.

Of course, we do live in that world.

The Rohingya, a minority Muslim group in Burma, are being killed by the hundreds of thousands in an act of genocide by the Burmese military. They have nowhere to escape.


Today as my 23-month-old son Josh and I headed to pick up his brother Jake from Pre-Kindergarten, we walked out the back door toward our garage. We have an old set of unwieldy wooden steps there leading down into the yard: about four steps, painted red.

We know we need to repair them but there are so many things to repair on this old house and we cannot do them all at once.

I grabbed my key and turned to lock the door and when I turned back I noticed Josh leaning forward on the top step. Further and further.

"JOSH!" I yelled.

He tipped forward and over, down the steps and onto the concrete, rolling in a somersault.

I dropped my keys and grabbed him.

"You're OK, you're OK."

Miraculously, he was. He had another bump on his forehead and that was that.

A few inches one way or another. A different way to fall. It could have been different.

A few seconds closer to that car. Driving home after one glass of wine too many. Youthful carelessness years ago.

It could have been much worse.


Many things could have, in my life and yours. And even though my circumstances are more Sheryl Sandberg than Lee Chandler, I could have had to carry my despair in a much heavier load.

And the reality is that all those I encounter - probably many of you reading this blog today - you have to carry your despair in a much heavier load.

For you, I pray that your despair becomes shared. That you share it with others. That you seek grief counseling and grief groups and prayer or treatment or whatever you need to share the burden of your despair with others. Share it with me, so that I can help carry the load.

And for the many of us who do not carry that weight of despair in our lives, I pray for compassion. To see beyond the shortness, the anger, the fear, the lack of motivation, the addiction - that we see the person before us as perhaps someone who is carrying such a heavy load of despair that ordinary tasks have becomes momentous ones.

I pray for compassion for our nation: for the disease of despair that, unshared, has created an epidemic of opiate abuse, tearing apart families and creating more and more stories of deep despair: guilt, grief and shame, that entrenches in families for generations.

I pray that we do not shun those who carry the heaviest despair but instead follow the example of Jesus.

Jesus, who wept openly at the death of his best friend Lazarus.

Jesus, who says this to you and to me today: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30).

And to a nation haunted by the spectre of despair, may we together hear these words from the Apostle Paul: "Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."


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