Questions and Answers, by Reed Lackey

20 Mar


What do you get when you cross a plane crash, polar bears, a monster made of black smoke, a moving island, an ancient statue, time-travel, an age-old battle of good versus evil and about 50 castaways with pasts as diverse as their ethnicities? You get a whole mess of questions, that’s what. You also get some of the most compelling, emotional and inspiring television in history.

It’s been 10 years since Lost first premiered on ABC, and binge watching was officially created. Fans were obsessed with the literary references, scientific theories, and endless clues to the shows seemingly countless mysteries. Fans were so obsessed that it isn’t uncommon to hear of red-eyed, bobble-headed insomniacs pressing on until 3 AM despite extreme weariness in order to fit in just one more episode.

However, when the show ended, there was an intense outcry from a large number of fans who felt that the conclusions (or lack thereof) did not satisfy to the degree that the mysteries intrigued them. And a lot of people really thought they were just dead the whole time. (Seriously — they weren’t. Let it go.)

I’ve heard countless arguments that the show was really about the island and its mysteries, but then the show’s ending focused more on the characters and their spiritual journeys. I’ve heard that decision described as a cheat, a waste, and a copout. But the reactions to the show’s ending probably say more about how we wrestle with meaning and mystery in our own lives than they do the quality of the show’s conclusion.

Every single day, perfectly brilliant people encounter mysteries that they can’t understand. It happens in medicine, in human interaction, and any time anybody gets married. But for some reason, the idea that some things are beyond our reach frustrates us and we dismiss the mysteries rather than engaging them. This isn’t just a problem with fictional entertainment, it’s the reason that discussions of politics and religion turn into a verbal gladiator arena.

But for some time after Lost ended, wave after wave of aggressive disappointment was hurled at the show’s creators. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why the reaction was so strong, but I think I know why now. I think Lost, for those who watched it vigorously, dealt with mysteries in a metaphorical way that each of us deal with much more literally every day. I can think of three chief examples…

1) The most popular criticism seems to be that “they didn’t give us answers.” You’re right, not to everything. But the more I listen to that complaint, the more I realize that I don’t think they really wanted answers, they wanted explanations. Those aren’t the same thing. If asked, “Why can’t people find the Island?” the answer is, “Because the island has the ability to move through time and space.” That question is officially answered, but far from explained. And my God, if I could only count the circumstances in my own life that statement could also apply to…

So many things can be answered, while so few things can be explained. And many of us spend countless hours pouring emotional, mental, and spiritual energy trying to answer “Why has this happened?” instead of trying to answer a much more relevant question: “How has what’s happened affected me?”

2) The show also had a heavy focus on the effects of time. Its very format involved jumping back and forth between moments from the characters’ lives. They came to realize that some of them were connected by previous encounters or mutual acquaintances or by old wounds long left unhealed. As each of the show’s characters struggled against their strange circumstances and with each other, they also struggled against themselves. Each of them carried their personal histories with them and it was often difficult for them to distinguish between what was currently happening to them and what had happened to them before they came to the island.

I have also found myself crippled by memories I can’t forget or wounds that haven’t healed. I also find certain recurring themes in my own life and relationships which impact my decision-making far more than I’d like them to. Time has a way of making things bigger by putting us farther away from them, while keeping them the same size in our heads.

3) One of the recurring phrases in the show was “Live together, die alone.” As much as we try to isolate ourselves and consider ourselves self-sufficient, we are almost utterly lost without each other. No man or woman, regardless of how independent they become, could possibly have been where they are without someone’s help. We come into this world helpless and very many of us leave it the same way.

But we are so resistant to this idea of connectedness– the idea that we actually need each other– that we stubbornly navigate through our lives trying to make our own rules, rarely realizing how out of our control so many things are. When we discover, as the island’s characters did, that there are greater forces and bigger conflicts and broader stories than just our own being played out, many of us react with anger or bitterness instead of humility and surrender. We respond destructively and leave a good amount of destruction behind us. It’s not until we step back and realize it’s not all about us that we can finally experience some peace. And, ironically, this process of moving on and letting go is most of what I believe Lost was about.

Like many of the characters in Lost, we may walk away from this world not one step closer to understanding why things happen the way they do, but perhaps a few steps closer to understanding ourselves and why we do what we do. And speaking of walking away from the world, let’s talk about that ending, shall we…?

They all died. Some of them we saw die and some of them died many years after the events we saw. But that whole universe we were referred to as the “flash sideways” world was where they went after they all died. It wasn’t their final destination, but it was a kind of in between place where they could find each other, remember what had happened to them, and resolve the major questions about who they were.

However you might feel about a place like that theologically or philosophically, you have to admit it is a pretty lovely thought. The idea that once this life is over, we have an opportunity at understanding what it added up to is comforting. Personally, I believe in a place that is not all that different from the one fictionalized in Lost. I don’t believe it was made by any human craftsmanship, and I don’t believe that it is populated with the same kind of dramatic tension we saw in the “flash sideways” world.

But I do believe it is real. I believe it is as real as the experience of comfort after grieving a tremendous loss. I believe it is as real as experiencing true contentment despite not having everything you thought that would require. I believe it is as real as going away for a very long time and finally, once your legs are too weary to move further, once your heart is too weak to keep struggling, and once your spirit is to burdened to go on, I believe it is as real as coming home.

So I was not upset by a lack of explanation in this show. I wasn’t frustrated that we didn’t get to see how everything began or why everything worked the way that it did. I was moved by the idea that even if I can’t understand everything in my own life, there might be a place somewhere beyond the boundaries of time and space where I might understand. Or at least a place where I can finally let it all go. And maybe there will be people there, some who I have waited a very long time to see again and some who I have waited a lifetime to meet for the very first time.

Lost was a fantasy show. You might think that certain beliefs of mine and many others are just as much fantasy. And maybe that frustrates you. Maybe you need answers and explanations and maybe life only works for you if you dismiss what can’t be proven or calculated. You’ll get no judgment from me. I understand. But when whatever happens, happens, sometimes the best answers are just better questions.

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