Last Saturday, daughter A. (about to turn 5 in a few weeks) and I, finding ourselves alone and ready for a treat, went to see Boxtrolls, in the theater. It’s possible that this is the second movie she’s ever consented to staying for the whole thing. Maleficent was too scary, Winnie the Pooh too boring, and, of course, Frozen was the other winner. A. did find this movie quite terrifying in parts, but I was able to convince her to stay, and thankfully, she missed her nap at pre-K today so she actually fell asleep tonight.
The movie is about a boy who is raised by trolls who live their lives in boxes, like hermit crabs. (note: if you’re interested in maintaining any narrative suspense to the movie, read this after you see it). The movie takes for granted that this is not remarkable, so you don’t get any backstory about how they choose their boxes (the father figure troll is named “fish” because he wears a fish box; the boy is named “egg” because he wears a box that had once carried eggs, and so on). Whatever the circumstances that lead to their fantastical underground existence, a villain appears whose mission it is to exterminate the box trolls in exchange for the white hat of the powerful cheese eaters. The irony is that our villain is actually allergic to cheese, and his morally ambivalent henchmen (who turn good at the end) have to bleed him with leaches to bring him back to sanity him every time he eats cheese.
Like all of us, he wants something that’s just not good for him. That it takes place in an island kingdom focused on cheese is one of the less strange parts of it.
In any case, drama ensues, and the boy finds out, with the help of a plucky young girl (daughter of the cheese obsessed white hat kingpin), that he’s not actually a troll, but a boy. He can take his box off.
The climax of the movie comes when the boy discovers that the villain is about to crush his box family to death (we find out along the way that his father gave him to the trolls to save him—they are the only family he’s ever known). The boy—Eggs—has found their evil lair and is thrilled to discover they’re alive, but then is captured before he can get them out safely. Watching from a cage hanging over them, he entreats them to leave their boxes and flee to safety. “You make you! You make you! You can leave! You can be safe!” He shouts at them but the villain crushes the boxes, insisting they’ll never change.
It’s the perfect American story.
I’ve always had a problem with that glowing, individualist “you make you” insistence. We made us, we insist on Columbus day, erasing violence and illness and theft against those who were America before it was America. We made us, we insist on Thanksgiving, invoking happy helpful Native Americans who saved our lives.
Sure you make you, sure, you “think therefore you are,” but so much of the “you,” for good as well as for ill, is made by your circumstances, the people you know and how you find yourself in the world. Circumstance makes who you are. Circumstance makes how you think, it makes the very categories you have to see. My white middle class ordained Episcopal priest heterosexually married mother of two perch in the world makes it impossible to see from anywhere else. I will always be that woman. I didn’t make that. I became that. I didn’t make my Swedish mother who taught me to be suspicious of jingoistic patriotism and I didn’t make my academic father who understands himself so much as a teacher that a month after retiring he told his university he’d come back and do it for free. They helped to make me. My childhood friends, my college, my seminary—all of them, for good and ill, left their fingerprints, and bruises. We’ve all been made, tossed out into the world and left to wander. Certainly there is meaning and grace and manna in the wilderness; we don’t wander alone. Sometimes it’s the things we weren’t taught by someone else that makes us all the more motivated to figure them out ourselves. But you? You didn’t exactly make you.
The boxtroll boy Eggs didn’t make himself. The other boxtrolls made him who he is. His father, knowing where safe passage could be had in giving him to the trolls, made him who he is.
Except that attitude will also crush us.
Whether they are the scars of our childhoods, the pain of our own errors, or the cruelty of others, living bound to the path the past has set us on leaves us all sitting trolls bound for the furnace.
As a Christian, I’m aware that forgiveness has a lot to do with this. Forgiveness of ourselves, forgiveness of others. The thing is, not only is it hard to do, it’s also hard to understand what forgiveness is in the first place. A parishioner who’s preaching for our service for domestic violence awareness month says “Forgiving myself for my mistakes was not the same thing as blaming myself for the abuse. It was just a step in the process toward healing.” It may sound a little trite to say it’s hardest to forgive yourself first, but it really is. This is where, to Christian spiritual/religious types, Jesus might come in. to know that in the life of Jesus it was possible to return peace in the face of violence, it makes it possible for us to do so as well. There is a transcendent power of love in the universe that makes freedom possible. We are forgiven, but we can’t forgive others until we believe this ourselves. This is joint work with God; God’s not going to swoop in, a la Glenda the good witch, and wave a magic wand to fix things, but when we long to mend what is broken, God will always be with us.
So forgive. It’s your chance for making you.
Don’t get sent to the furnace.
note: lovely as it is that the trailer for the movie begins “Some kids have two moms, some kids have two dads, some kids are raised by trolls,” the villain’s drag queen alter ego is a little sketchy.