Life Defined: The Meaning of Life

Over the holiday break, I started re-watching a television series from 2007 called Life. I originally started watching because it starred Damian Lewis (whom I enjoyed in Band of Brothers) but soon I got hooked on the show itself. On the surface, the show was a police procedural but if you looked deeper, it was also a study in dealing with the curve balls life throws and the resulting emotional fallout.

The show centers around Charlie Crews (the Lewis character), a police officer who spent 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Originally his sentence was life in prison but when it was discovered through DNA testing that he could not have done it, he Life show2was given his life back. Because of the error, Crews was given a $50 million settlement and the opportunity to return to the police force as a detective.

You might imagine that spending 12 years in prison for something you didn’t do would make one bitter and full of revenge. One of the interesting things about the show though, is that Crews doesn’t fall into that trap. He admits that he was angry for the first few years especially since he endured a lot of beatings (cops are extremely unpopular inmates) and a lot of time in solitary in order to keep him safe.

However, it was while he was in solitary that he became interested in Zen Buddhism. He allowed this philosophy to heal his soul while in prison and it appears to help him adjust to life in the outside world as well. Throughout the first season, Crews listens to a Zen tape while driving on patrol. In fact, listening to Crews spout off his ‘Zen-ish’ wisdom to the ever present disgust of his partner is one of the funnier parts of the show. If you actually listen to the message in the quotes though, they are a lot more than just entertainment. They also contain a lot of wisdom.

Charlie Crews: “It is not what we carry with us but what we let go that defines us.”

Crews struggles to let go of his resentment in order to exist in a happier place but he is not alone in this. Crews’ partner, Dani Reese, is also trying to find a way to let go of her anger. Reese is a relatively unemotional woman whose punishment for getting hooked on drugs while undercover was getting partnered with Crews. She is trying to retain her sobriety but, unlike Crews, she doesn’t embrace the struggle or really even admit that there is one.

Instead, Reese deals with her demons through avoidance and escape. She firmly clamps down on her emotions, so much so that her only outlets are jogging and sex with strange men. Working with Charlie Crews forces her to confront these demons head on because he gives voice to his struggles. Although he knows enough not to attack her walls directly, his cheerful good humor, non-threatening demeanor, intelligence and steadfast loyalty get under her skin. Soon she starts to not only listen to what he says but actually hear him. Thus, another of the great joys of the series is in watching Reese let go of her fear and sorrow and become more like Crews.

Zen tape: “Revenge is a poison meant for others that we end up swallowing ourselves. Vengeance is a dark light that blinds all who seek it. The untroubled soul knows there is no justice in revenge. The untroubled soul knows that to seek vengeance is to seek destruction.”

Yet another layer to the show is Crews’ search for the real murderer and for the people who framed him. I find this part of the show to be one of the most fascinating because we Americans seem to be a people who are obsessed with revenge. We start wars over it, we allow it to dictate a lot of our public policies (both foreign and domestic) and revenge as motivation litters the landscape of our popular culture. In fact, there is a television show on the air right now that is called, quite simply, Revenge.

Moreover, in a fun little twist, Damian Lewis’ new show, Homeland (which, while being way too dark for me, is well worth watching) is all about revenge. However, Life gives us a different perspective. Instead of glorifying revenge, the show provides a warning about its destructive power. Crews is someone who has every reason to want revenge and, quite frankly, he would be justified in taking it yet he doesn’t. He does actively seek to uncover the criminals responsible for his wrongful imprisonment but his motivation is different. Crews seeks justice, not revenge, and that makes all the difference.

Instead of being consumed, he is empowered. Instead of feeling empty, he is fulfilled. Instead of being hated, he becomes admired. Seeing this difference between justice and revenge should give us all pause.

Charlie Crews: “Anger ruins joy; steals the goodness of my mind; forces my mouth to say terrible things. Overcoming anger brings peace of mind; leads to a mind without regrets. If I overcome anger, I will be delightful and loved by everyone.”

The theme of Anger is a major undercurrent in the show. When Crews returns to the police force, there is initially a lot of anger from his fellow officers who believe that he is dirty and doesn’t deserve to wear the badge. When Crews and Reese have to visit the prison, there is a lot of general anger from the inmates and specific anger from the guards who think that Crews is one who got away (the show drops occasional hints of what life must be like for inmates who are no longer in prison).

Even the wife of Crews’ old partner is angry that he returned because she is worried about how her husband will handle it. Just like revenge, anger is an emotion with which Americans are intimately familiar. Especially for men, anger is one of those acceptable emotions. People believe that it gives them power, righteousness and even an excuse to behave badly.

I spend a lot of my time as a counselor helping people manage their anger. That’s one of the reasons I love watching how they deal with it in the show. While in prison, Crews learned to manage his anger through a combination of acceptance, mindfulness, humor and taking joy in the small things. For example, one of the big jokes throughout the series is Crews’ obsession with fresh fruit, something he missed dearly while in prison. He is constantly eating fresh fruit, even fruit that most of us may never have heard of or seen (like a kumquat). He even buys an orange grove! If only more of us took a page from Crews’ book and did not allow anger to control us! If only more of us used fresh fruit as a way to channel our frustrations. If we did either or both of these things, we’d be much healthier!

Charlie Crews: “I want to be the unwobbling pivot at the center of an ever-revolving universe; I want to be still.”

The universe does constantly revolve so there are continual ups and downs. Unlike other police procedurals, Life illuminates the revolution by contrasting the light and the dark, the up and the down. For one thing, the lighting of the show isn’t dark or gritty; it is bright. Moreover, Crews himself shows the contrast. Since Crews existed under artificial lighting for most of his 12 years in prison, you can tell that he now makes a conscious effort to be in sunlight.

On a more emotional level, Crews transformed himself from residing in the heart of darkness to living in the light of his sunny personality. The cases each week also illuminate the revolving door of up and down. The show consistently takes something that tends to be ‘light’ and turns it ‘dark.’ For example, one episode deals with the unhappiness of big lottery winners. Another episode shows the downside of Black Friday. Other episodes involve celebratory announcements, kittens, religious conversion, and a child’s naïveté.

Whenever you think something is up, it may later be down because the universe continues to revolve. What Crews seems to be trying to achieve is to be still in the midst of it and I think that is a lesson well worth remembering. We cannot change the universe but what we can do is inhale its lessons and accept them. We must enjoy the times when we walk in the light and endure the times when we are in the dark, content with the knowledge that it will change again.

Zen tape: “We are none of us alone. Even as we exhale it is inhaled by others. The light that shines upon me shines upon my neighbor as well. In this way everything is connected. Everything is connected to everything else. In this way I am connected to my friend even as I am connected to my enemy. In this way there is no difference between me and my friend. In this way there is no difference between me and my enemy. We are none of us alone.”

Of course, Life doesn’t neglect the grand themes of loss, love, betrayal and family dysfunction. In going to prison, Crews lost his wife and the family he could have had with her. She lost him as well. However, he gains a ‘brother’ in Ted, a fellow inmate who now lives with him, and eventually Reese joins his family as well. Even though betrayal and loss brought him to his knees, Crews didn’t lose his capacity to love or his ability to feel connected, and this is nice to see.

We live in lonely times. Many of my patients have a common complaint in that their relationships are unsatisfying. A lot of them simply want friends but don’t know how to find them. This is not surprising because, as a culture, we’ve moved away from family and community connectedness and transformed ourselves into a nation of individuals. What Life is trying to say is that this is not true. We are all connected to one another, even in ways we cannot see, and thinking that we are alone leads to poor decision-making. This is a mantra I am notorious for discussing in counseling, so to see it actually played out on screen was wonderful.

Charlie Crews: “You don’t have to understand here to be here.”

Life only lasted two short seasons and then was cancelled. Many people think it was a victim of the writer’s strike that occurred around the same time. Whatever the reason, I am very disappointed that it did not catch on. I am continually surprised by the American viewing public that allows shows like Two and a Half Men to go on ad infinitum while shows that offer amazingly textured characters, great writing and life lessons (shows like My So-Called Life, Firefly, and Farscape to name a few others) get cancelled before their time. Perhaps I am not meant to understand. Maybe I should just be glad that I was entertained and taught by these shows that did exist for however short the amount of time. Maybe I’ll go eat some fresh fruit.

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