Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Tiger in my Boat

I went to see a movie last week.  "The Life of Pi."  It wasn't what I expected it to be.  
The trailers and commercials I'd seen for the film made me think it was some sort of animal buddy movie.  It really wasn't.  It was a much more serious film than that.  It was also a much more beautiful film than I was expecting as well.
The movie is about a teenage boy, nicknamed Pi, whose family is moving to Canada along with the animals from the zoo they used to run in India.  They are going to sell the animals to zoos in North America and use the money to start a new life.  
During a storm, however, the ship capsizes.  Everyone is lost except for Pi.  He makes it to a lifeboat that is cut loose from the ship.  A zebra, broken loose from its stall in the hold, jumps in the boat, breaking its leg.  Later, an orangutang from the zoo, named Orange Juice, is pulled on board after floating over on a bunch of bananas.  
A hyena comes out of hiding from under the life boat's tarp.  It kills the injured zebra.  The orangutang slaps the hyena on the head, momentarily forcing it to hide.  But it leaps out and kills the orangutang as well.  As the hyena turns back toward Pi the zoo's bengal tiger, named "Richard Parker" after the hunter that brought it to the zoo, charges out and kills the hyena.  This leaves Pi alone with the tiger in the boat, struggling to survive.  
The line in the movie that struck me as the most important came from the younger Pi's entry about the tiger.  In the end, he decided, that his father, a pragmatic man of a skeptical nature, was right about the animal.  It had no soul for him to reach.  It was a wild creature, deadly and dangerous, that would kill him to survive if it needed to.  
But Pi's discovery was keeping the tiger in the boat with him kept him focused and alert, which was what he needed to do in order to survive.  Keeping the tiger alive, by catching it fish to eat, and training it in order to come to an accommodation for their mutual survival, gave his life purpose and meaning.  When the tiger leaves him at the end of their journey, it saddens Pi to realize the tiger wasn't his friend, but that the tiger's presence was what kept him alive, even as it threatened him.  
I have been thinking a lot about this.  About what the tiger in my boat might be.  
In such a allegorical movie was this, the most obvious answer was "mortality."  The knowledge that one day I will not be.  It is what gives me the will to get up in the morning to go to work, to get the means to survive.  
But this seemed too simple for me.  And I don't feel any desire to befriend my mortality the way Pi did the tiger. 
I then thought that maybe there were multiple tigers.  That each facet of our lives had something in it that drove us forward.  At work, for example, I am driven by the expectations of my clients.  I want to make them happy, for doing so will bring me their business.  When they express their appreciation for my efforts on their behalf, a rare and glorious thing, I am warmed inside.  But I know that my clients are not my friends.  They can, just like the tiger in Pi's boat, turn on me if I make a mistake.  They keep me sharp.  They give my life at work direction and meaning.  
But this answer also was unsatisfying.  My work ethic, which my clients benefit from, was not born the day I started working for them.  It was an aspect of something else.  Like the blind men of legend feeling the elephant, it was the snake-like trunk of a larger creature.
Or maybe I should say, the sinuous tail of the tiger.  One aspect of something else.  
There was scene in the movie, near the end, that gives me a clue.  After Pi's boat washes up on Mexico's Pacific coast, and the tiger disappears into the jungle, Pi is taken to a hospital.  While recuperating, men from the insurance company that covered the ill-fated freighter that his family and the animals were riding on come to question him.  Pi tells them the story of his journey with the tiger.  They look at him as if he were crazy.  It's too unbelievable a story, they tell him.  
So Pi tells them a different story.  There was originally four of them that survived the sinking of the ship.  A sailor, who broke his leg when he jumped into the boat.  His mother, who they found floating on stored bananas from the ship's hold.  And the ship's cook, a mean-spirited, selfish and bigoted man.  With the sailor sick and dying, the ship's cook decided to kill him, to put him out of his misery he said.  But it proved that he only killed the sailor to use his body for bait to catch fish and for food for himself.  When the cook's evil nature was revealed, his mother slapped him.  The cook was momentarily stunned, but then grabbed his knife and stabbed Pi's mother, then tossed her body overboard for the sharks.  Pi, seeing his mother's body being eaten by the sharks, became enraged, he told the insurance investigators.  He grabbed the cook's discarded knife and stabbed him, pushing him overboard as well.  He spent the next several months, alone and struggling to survive as his boat sailed across the ocean.  
So, he asked the insurance investigators, as well as the writer-character visiting his older self in the movie, which story do you prefer?  Both stories are consistent with the facts that can be proven.  The only difference is that one is brutal, ugly and meaningless, while the other conveys beauty and hope.  
"The one with the tiger," the writer answers for all of us.  "That's the better story."  
"Thank you," Pi replies.  "And so it goes with God," he continues, in keeping with the movie's theme that to believe in God allows one to see the wonder of God.  
For me, though, skeptic that I am, I think the answer is what the writer tells us.  The story with the tiger is the better story.  We all narrate our our lives, consciously or not.  Each of us is the protagonist of a narrative that runs through our heads.  
I think the tiger in my boat IS that narrative.  The story of my life that I tell myself.  As with any story I write, I want to like it.  I want it to be a fascinating tale filled with wonder.  Too often, I think, I make myself more of an anti-hero.  One not suited for, or capable of wondrous, heroic deeds.  
But given that this is a story I'm telling myself, why can't I choose the version that I like better?  Change the crises and challenges I face into moments where I found the way through to something better.  
Maybe its as simple as starting each day thinking, "Once upon a time, I stepped out into the real world with this tiger in my boat..."  


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like this line of thinking - what is your tiger?

Another question is - what or who is the hyena in your life, that at first is hidden, then seems to be a solution to a serious problem, but then is revealed to be a burden because of its nature?


January 27, 2013 at 1:16 PM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...


Using Pi's allegory from the story as a starting point, where the hyena stood for the brutal cook and the tiger as himself, and transferring it to my answer to the question... I'd have to say that the hyena is a story of living told through brutal necessity. A nihilistic view that "this is all there is, and what I do to survive is the only gauge of what is right and wrong."

Skeptic that I am, I find the suggestion that there is "something" after this life to be questionable. But that doesn't mean that life is without wonder and meaning. I think that's the difference between the tiger and the hyena.

January 27, 2013 at 6:06 PM  

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