Doing Something Good When Something Bad Happens

Freud originally conceived sublimation as a defense mechanism, a healthy redirection of “unacceptable impulses.”   Maybe you’re thirteen and have only one parent. Despite how important your father is, you feel incredibly angry at him for the various ways in which you think he neglects your needs.  If you acted on this rage, you might jeopardize the relationship.  So your “psychic” compromise is to vent those feelings elsewhere.   Perhaps you choose boxing as your after-school sport.  In this way, you may never fully recognize or even acknowledge the anger you feel towards your dad, but you’re able to release some of it by boxing in the ring.

I think of sublimation in the broader sense.  When something horrible happens, as in the death of a close friend, how do you transform that pain into something bearable and perhaps productive?  If depression and suicide is as hereditary as hair color in your family, how do you cope? 

I saw two films at the wonderful Full Frame festival this weekend in Durham:  “Which Way to the Frontline From Here?” in which Sebastian Junger pays tribute to a close friend who died while photographing the violence in Libya … and then “Running From Crazy”—Mariel Hemingway’s exploration of the inherited depression and suicidal tendencies that run rampant in her family.

In their on-screen appearances, both Junger and Hemingway seem tortured with grief and in Hemingway’s case: anxiety, as well.  (She clearly worries about whether the family predisposition to substance abuse and suicidal depression will afflict her daughters.)  Yet, both have chosen to construct something positive from this.   Although very different in delivery, these documentaries honor and explore their experiences while at the same time stretching beyond them, feeling their way towards the prevention of similar tragedies. 

Junger focuses his film’s attention on Tim Heatherington, a friend and former collaborator.  At the end of the movie, we discover that Heatherington bled to death after having been hit with shrapnel from a mortar.  Sadly, had those around him been trained in first aid, he might have survived.  Heartbroken after learning that information, Junger took a proactive approach to the problem.  He opened a training school to teach freelance journalists how to manage critical health situations in the field.  Now, he can follow every film screening with a Q&A in order to highlight the importance of the problem and a potential solution.

For her part, Mariel Hemingway has acted as a spokesperson for various mental health treatment facilities and prevention organizations.   In the documentary, we see her give speeches at McLean Hospital in Boston and then at a Suicide Prevention event.  The problem of ameliorating mental illness and the dysfunction that frequently travels down generations has a less clear solution than injured freelance journalists; however, Hemingway is able to use her family’s cultural prominence to help combat the stigmatization that frequently derails conversations about mental illness and treatment. With admirable honesty, she offers up a complicated portrait of herself and her family, one that’s blessed with seminal artistry but plagued with devastating psychiatric problems. In “Running from Crazy”, the filmmakers underscore the importance of talking, looking, and trying to find answers to the prevention of suicide and the treatment of concurrent mental health problems.  Ultimately, they’ve spring-boarded from grief into proactive behavior.

While telling these tragic stories clearly helps those suffering, it also offers support to those with similar experiences.  There’s a balm in knowing you belong to a community.  Yet, even more important, by finding a public forum for these voices, these filmmakers have proffered a model of how we can all make a difference.   Something good can come from something bad.  We just need to challenge ourselves to act.