God and the Problem of Hope in ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

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–By Sam Hendrian–

Contains Spoilers

It is safe to say that after staying up to 2:30 AM watching I’m Thinking of Ending Things for a second time within 48 hours, I have never been so profoundly haunted and baffled by a cinematic experience. This new Netflix film from writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) is perhaps equivalent to an abstract painting, eliciting a strong reaction of “What was that?” upon first glance that is eventually followed by “Wow, maybe there is more there than I realized.” Though it tackles a wide variety of existential themes, it most effectively explores how dangerously close many people live to the pit of emptiness/meaninglessness, and how we have turned the eternal truth of God and the beauty of hope into deceiving platitudes.

A janitor mops the empty hallways of a high school late at night, lost in thought and tortured by regret. That, in a nutshell, is the core premise of this enigmatic masterpiece, despite the fact that the surface premise is completely different: a guy takes his new girlfriend through a snowstorm to meet his parents on an Oklahoma farm. Throughout their journey, they have several existential discussions that initially seem like they could have been taken right out of a Richard Linklater movie, except whereas Linklater tends to balance even the most melancholic of exchanges with a tinge of warmth and hope, Kaufman infuses each conversation with an underlying bleakness.

At one point, the Young Woman (as she is called in the credits despite being referred to by several different names throughout the film) expresses a thought that seems both excessively cynical and undeniably true:

“Everything has to die. That’s the truth. One likes to think that there is always hope. That you can live above death. And it’s a uniquely human fantasy that things will get better, born perhaps of the uniquely human understanding that things will not. There’s no way to know for certain, but I suspect humans are the only animals that know the inevitability of their own deaths. Other animals live in the present. Humans cannot, so they invented hope.”

Wow, that really is a downer. But let us take a moment to unpack what the Young Woman is trying to express. Hope, like religion or any other thing that seeks to transcend the shallow futility of Earthly life, is far too often used as a mere coping mechanism for suffering, coated with sweet little lies so that we can at least feel comfortable before we die. If that is all hope is, that it can indeed be called an invention, a cunning distraction from living in the here and now.

This concept is carried further in a later exchange between the Young Woman and her boyfriend, starting with the boyfriend tearfully lamenting about “the lie of it all.” “What is the lie of it all?” the Young Woman asks. He replies:

“I don’t know, that it’s going to get better, that it’s never too late, that God has a plan for you, that age is just a number, that it’s always darkest before the dawn, that every cloud has a silver lining, that there’s someone for everyone… And God never gives us more than we can bear.” 

I have heard every single one of these platitudes at some point in my life, and I have increasingly doubted their truth over the past couple years, especially as I pass countless abandoned souls staring blankly into the distance on the sidewalks of Los Angeles. Things do not get better for everyone. Sometimes, it is too late to start fresh or follow your dreams. God may have a plan for everyone, but the colliding equations of free will prevent many of these plans from reaching their full potential on Earth. Intense darkness may never be followed by dawn. Not every cloud has a silver lining, and there may not necessarily be someone for everyone. Finally, many people are given more than they can bear, and while God allows it, He may not be the one who gives it to them.

The emptiness of these platitudes hits even harder once you realize the story’s central twist, a twist that each viewer may realize at separate points in the film: the boyfriend and girlfriend are mere figments of the lonely janitor’s imagination. The boyfriend represents various versions of the janitor’s younger self, and the girlfriend represents various possible personalities/identities of a pretty woman he once ogled at a bar but could not find the courage to actually have a real conversation with.

Like many other people, the janitor’s concepts of happiness are innocent at best, self-serving at worst: namely, a successful career and a soul mate to call his own. When he fails to achieve either of these dreams, spending the latter half of his life mopping high school hallways before going home to a lonely house, he starts to fantasize about what his life might have been like had he talked to the woman at the bar and won her affection. Yet as he becomes more and more engrossed by his constantly-shapeshifting fantasies and tortured by a deep-rooted depression, he realizes the selfishness behind his concepts of happiness.

He has always wanted a woman to call “his own,” but does not this ultimately imply that she is a piece of property rather than a complete flesh-and-blood person whose identity is far beyond being his soul mate? He has also always craved a successful career, perhaps in something science-related that will bring him honor and renown. But if a pat on the back and a round of applause is all he receives in the end, is not that rather meaningless?

This film asks a plethora of tough questions, perhaps too many to be addressed in a singular essay. But if they could all be boiled down to just one, it might look like this: Is fulfillment still possible if we receive none of the things we want in life? We hope and we pray and we wish upon a star, and yet we are never actually guaranteed to see any of our dreams come true. The janitor feels like a failure for this very reason. But is failure a fate or a choice?

Maybe hope is so frequently turned into empty platitudes because it is seldom combined with its two companion virtues: faith and love. Faith is the humble acknowledgment that we do not know everything, that our concept of happiness is immensely limited and quite probably wrong. Love is the choice to see divine beauty in every person we encounter and therefore attempt to tangibly show them how precious they are, how much they belong in this universe even if they feel worthless. Hope, then, is the bridge between these two virtues: faith reminds us that we do not really know how to love, but hope assures us that perfect love can work through our imperfections if only we permit the entrance of grace into our souls. It is not a promise of happiness or freedom from suffering, but rather a sword with which we can slay nihilism even when it appears that all is meaningless.

To conclude, I would like to reflect on one last passage of dialogue from the film:

“I feel like maybe our society lacks a certain kindness, a certain willingness to take in the struggles of others.” 

Amen to that. Nevertheless, this does not have to be the final word. The janitor is only one of a myriad of humans who feels overlooked by society, seemingly banned from receiving love and therefore gradually losing the willingness to go on living. God loves each person as if they are the only person in the universe, but we cannot just tell people that and expect them to suddenly be happy and at peace. We need to be the vehicles of this love for each other, frail and fragile though we may be. Yes, hope is a human, Earthly thing, but that does not mean we must deem it as a mere invention or coping mechanism. Like the Sabbath Day, God designed hope as a gift for humanity, a frequently silent but devoted friend that can lead us to an eternal destination where its presence is no longer necessary. Let us not think about ending things; let us think about starting things anew with the grace of love.

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Sam Hendrian is an alumni of John Paul the Great Catholic University (’20), with a degree in Communications Media and emphasis in Directing.

For more articles by Sam, click here.

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