crossroads sign on the beach

Cast Away: Mindfulness at the Crossroads

crossroads sign on the beach

Crossroads are places where magic can take place

Guest Post by Shane Ledford, CMT-200, CYT-200

I mentioned recently how I have been intrigued about Henry David Thoreau’s notion of living mindfully in a cabin as a way of trying to “live deliberately.” Yet, that also got me thinking, what if we were stuck in the woods or on a deserted island… and not by intentional choice? Would the idea of living deliberately be different when it is a necessary means of survival…and not just as some kind of searching sabbatical to escape the pressures daily life can put on us? I believe the film Cast Away answers that question.

Cast Away is the 2000 film starring Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, a troubleshooter for Federal Express, who is marooned on a deserted island after the FedEx cargo plane he is in crashes into the South Pacific. He is alone on the island for several years, and, spoiler alert, he eventually leaves the island… and is a changed person because of this experience.

We are first introduced to Chuck as he emphatically discusses the importance (to him) of the commodity of time to a small group of FedEx warehouse workers in Moscow. “Time rules over us without mercy,” he says. “It is like a fire. It could either destroy us or keep us warm.” He then yells, “Because we live and die by the clock—never allow ourselves the sin of losing track of time.” Chuck is obsessed with trying to harness time, and the notion of how we spend time is one of the essential themes in Cast Away.

On the flight home to the United States aboard a FedEx cargo plane, Chuck hears his best friend and co-worker, Stan, talking about Stan’s wife’s cancer to a FedEx flight attendant. It is apparent that Chuck does not know how to respond to this conversation. He is so used to being the fixer at work that he doesn’t know how to shut that identity off in his personal life. After landing in Memphis (their home and FedEx’s hub), Chuck tells Stan, “We’ll get this fixed.” He also says he heard secondhand about a doctor in Atlanta that deals with cancer and will get his number. Hearing this, Stan sighs, “Thanks.” Chuck was too busy thinking of a solution to offer, instead of just listening to Stan. With mindfulness, we learn that we don’t have to have the answers when a friend is going through a difficult time… we can just be a compassionate listener for them.

Later, we see Chuck and his girlfriend, Kelly, at a large Christmas dinner with family. The theme of time is brought up again after a family member asks when the two of them are going to get married. Chuck stops, looks at his watch, and jokes that he and Kelly had a bet on how long it would take before someone asked that question (and it was 14 minutes). Then, while eating, Chuck grimaces and feels at the sore tooth in his mouth (that he had previously alluded to while in Moscow). This toothache will be a major plot device later. It is also at this exact moment of tooth pain that his pager goes off… asking him to come back to work immediately. This is a literal painful reminder of how attached Chuck is to time… as now he has to frantically adjust his Day-Timer schedule to try and match up with Kelly’s schedule. Their relationship is centered around time and how much they can do with the little amount of it that they share together.

Back at the busy FedEx hub, Chuck and Kelly quickly exchange Christmas gifts in their car before his departure. Chuck gives Kelly a pager (which she is not overly thrilled with), and Kelly gives him a pocket watch that was used by her grandfather who worked for the railroad. While a timepiece, the antique represents a more slower and simpler time than the modern digital age. Chuck admires the photograph of Kelly included within the closing lid of the watch and says he will, “Always keep it on Memphis time… Kelly time.”

Chuck also gives Kelly a small wrapped box with (presumably) an engagement ring inside and says she can open it later, because, as he says when he is leaving to board another FedEx cargo plane, “I’ll be right back.” While squeezing every moment of time as efficiently possible is an important part of Chuck’s (and the company’s) identity, he puts off things that truly should be more important to him (and others) for the future… such as helping a friend, a marriage proposal, or having his tooth looked at. We always think we will have tomorrow.  Mindfulness helps us live more in the Now.

On board the cargo plane somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, Chuck takes off his wristwatch and a BandAid that was on his finger while freshening up in the lavatory. These are the first signs of Chuck slowly removing attachments to his current self as he begins to embark on a new path (that he is not aware of yet). It can be assumed he was going to put the wristwatch back on, but then there is a tremendous explosion which hurls Chuck back into the bulkhead of the plane. A harrowing chaos begins to escalate, and Chuck makes the decision to reach for the antique pocket watch on the floor… instead of a lifejacket. Was this because the watch had the picture of Kelly in it and he needed that for comfort during this moment of havoc… or was it because the watch represented his need to still be tethered to the concept of time, and he didn’t want to lose that security either?

island beach and palm tree

Photo by Alexis Antonio

Chuck escapes in a life raft, and later washes up onto a deserted island. The first thing he does when he steps on the beach is reach for his pager… which is waterlogged. He is so used to checking his pager that it has become automatic and instinctive for him. This is really no different than our cell phones and how we can feel the need to check for texts or other notifications without really thinking about it. Then Chuck picks up the pocket watch. He first listens and shakes it to see if it is working (and he doesn’t look at the picture of Kelly inside of it). The watch is broken. Time has stopped for the first time in Chuck’s life, and he has no control over it.

Still the fixer, Chuck at first begins to gather and sort the FedEx boxes that had been washing ashore from the crash.  Later he refocuses his fixing skills, and decides to open the packages to search for items that perhaps can help him survive on the island.

One package has a volleyball in it accompanied by a birthday card with a quote on the inside that reads, “The most beautiful thing in the world is, of course, the world itself.”  This quote, attributed to Wallace Stevens, is a wonderful, almost Thoreau-ish saying, but in Chuck’s context it is very ironic. Being in Nature is a way to heal and step away from the busyness of life, and being amongst the palm trees and tropical breezes on an island in Fiji (where this movie was filmed) sounds idyllic. However, this island does not have lush bamboo huts, umbrella drinks, spa service, or gourmet seafood restaurants. This is not a getaway vacation. This stripped-down natural environment is hostile.

At the exact midpoint in the film, Chuck cuts his hand while trying to start a fire with sticks.  He screams in agony and grabs the volleyball and throws it out of frustration. What immediately follows is one of the greatest (although subtle) entrances of a character in cinema history… the introduction of Wilson. Chuck notices how his bloody handprint on the volleyball sort of resembles a face, and he completes the image by giving it eyes, nose and mouth with some of his saliva. Chuck has literally given birth… not to a child… but to a mirror image of his own psyche.

While still trying to start a fire unsuccessfully, Chuck quips to Wilson, “You wouldn’t have a match by any chance, would you?” At that very moment, a small puff of smoke emerges from the base of the stick Chuck has been rubbing. We see Chuck’s astonished face as he turns towards Wilson, and then we see Wilson… who stoically seems to acknowledge what “magically” happened in this moment. Wilson is the observer of Chuck’s thoughts, and allows Chuck to recognize what he is thinking and feeling.

Later, we find Chuck’s toothache has gotten so bad that he has to come up with a drastic means of extraction. Removing the tooth can be seen as Chuck removing one last part of his “Memphis self” identity; because, when we see him again, it is four years later and he has dramatically transformed both physically and mentally. I find the toothache plot device as a reminder of what Thich Nhat Hanh said, “When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is happiness. But later, when we don’t have a toothache, we don’t treasure our non-toothache. Practicing mindfulness helps us learn to appreciate the well-being that is already there.”

South Pacific island with beach

Photo by Christoph Burgdorfer

After a large fragment of porta-potty washes ashore (because, even in a far-off paradise, we can’t escape the trash of civilization), Chuck begins to construct a plan to leave the island using it as a sail on a log raft.  He tells Wilson (himself), that there “is not much time” before he can take advantage of the shifting trade winds.  Then he murmurs the mantras of his old Memphis self, “But we live and die by time, don’t we?  Now, let’s not commit the sin of turning our back on time.” He then laughs, “I know” to Wilson.  This shows that Chuck now looks back on his former time-obsessed self with some remorse and realizes he tried to artificially manipulate time back then. On the island all he had was time, and after four years he recognized what time truly only is: moments measured only by sunrises and sunsets and the changing of the winds..and he had no control over these moments…he could only adapt.

Later, Chuck kicks Wilson out of his cave in a moment of exasperation, but then retrieves him and touches up Wilson’s blood-stained face paint (this time from a deliberate cut to his hand). Chuck looks at Wilson and smiles, “I know you. I know you.” How many times have we been hard or judgmental on ourselves in moments of frustration or anger? Mindfulness helps us recognize these moments and treat our inner critic with self compassion and less guilt to help become friends with ourselves again. Chuck ends the conflict with Wilson/himself by asking, “So, we okay?”

The night before his departure, Chuck is lying on the beach and looks over at Wilson and asks, “You still awake?” And then replies, “Me, too.” “You scared?” “Me, too.” Once again, Wilson is just the observer of Chuck’s thoughts. In mindfulness meditation we will have thoughts… but the key is to observe the thoughts so that we can respond to them and nurture them. It is okay to be scared. It is okay to have doubts. We are not trying to eliminate these thoughts. We are trying to have a noticing of these (or other) thoughts without judgement or expectations… and that allows the comforting and acceptance to begin.

Chuck is able to get off the island, but the raft is pretty much in shambles after a tremendous storm… and Wilson falls off and floats out into the ocean. I interpret Wilson’s departure much like a mother bird leaving her fledgling after it has learned to fly. Wilson’s job of teaching Chuck how to leave the “nest” of his old Memphis self as well as the island is done. But, like a child after their parent drops them off on the first day school, Chuck is upset that Wilson “left him” and does not understand that it is for his own good… so that he may cross another threshold of development. Plus, a new observer and protector has already emerged to take the place of Wilson: a curious whale who baptizes Chuck with spouts of water on occasion. These sprays occur at key moments to fully awaken Chuck to surroundings and events that he was not aware of… such as the passing cargo container ship that spots Chuck on his raft in the middle of the ocean.

Four weeks later we see Chuck again on a FedEx plane… this time a corporate one. His friend Stan is with him and tells him of the festivities planned for Chuck’s arrival back in Memphis. The proposed fanfare does not seem to interest Chuck, and solemnly says to Stan, “I’m so sorry I wasn’t around when Mary died. I should’ve been there for you and I wasn’t.” Chuck is no longer the Memphis fixer he once was. He is now supportive and compassionate to the feelings of others (and himself), and realizes all beings at some time suffer. While Chuck was suffering on the island, his friend and his wife were suffering with her cancer. Chuck was the only survivor of the plane crash, and the families of the pilots that perished also suffered during this time. This gentle and mindful acknowledgment can help give us strength when we are going through difficult times… in that we recognize we are not alone with our problems or suffering. It also helps us realize we are all interconnected in our common humanity.

people rushing by

Photo by Martin Adams

A welcome home party is held for Chuck at a hotel suite by former co-workers, but he is uncomfortable with the commotion. He used to thrive on this type of interaction, but the four years of isolation and inner reflection changed him. The partygoers are attached to the way Chuck used to be, but he has grown from that. There is also a commentary on overabundance and consumerism after the partygoers leave… as Chuck surveys the enormous piles of waste in leftover food of giant crab legs, shrimp, sushi, and other seafood on the table.

Chuck knows that Kelly has moved on and is married with a child now, but he needs to connect with her one last time. At her home he gives the antique pocket watch back to her saying it is an heirloom that should be left with the family… and he slowly backs away from it and her. This shows he no longer wants to control time or let it control him. He kept the picture of Kelly as a memory of the comfort she provided him on the island, but he has completely rid himself of the person he was four years earlier. With compassion, regret, and empathy, he tells Kelly, “I never should’ve gotten on that plane. I never should’ve gotten out of that car.” He knows he made a mistake, but he has learned from it and grown.

He then goes to Stan’s home (and a grandfather clock shows us that it is 2:50 AM… but Chuck is not aware of the time… he is only aware of the moment he is in). Chuck relays some of the events on the island to Stan and says, “I had power over nothing. Then I realized I had to keep breathing even though there was no reason to hope. I stayed alive. I kept breathing and logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in and gave me a sail. And now here I am. I’m back. I have ice in my glass.” He then offers his new outlook on life and how he plans to proceed further with no real agenda and adds, “I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?”

“I know what I have to do now.  I gotta keep breathing.  Because tomorrow the sun will rise. 

Who knows what the tide could bring?”

After dropping off the FedEx package that he brought back with him from the island at the farmhouse of the original sender (and leaving a note that said, “This package saved my life”), Chuck stands outside his vehicle at the rural Texas highway crossroads that was in the film’s opening shot. A woman in a truck approaches and stops. She says to Chuck, “You look lost. Where you headed?” Chuck replies, “Well, I was just about to figure that out.” He really is a different person now and allowing each moment to unfold and guide him like the road map he was looking at.

The woman gives him some general directions and drives off, and we realize she is the woman that sent the package that Chuck had just returned at the farm. Chuck looks around a little, then down the road to her farm, smiles, and then the scene fades and the film is over.

For generations there have been myths and legends about crossroads as places where magic or supernatural events can take place. After experiencing many metaphorical crossroads in the film, Chuck is at this literal crossroad… embracing his four-year transformative journey. We are not sure of the choice he makes at this Texas crossroad going forward or the magic that awaits him, but that is the beauty in the ending of the film. Sometimes not knowing is all the knowing we need.  Embrace the mystery and curiosity of where these unknown roads may eventually lead.

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