So I saw Joker.
Normally, I avoid sad movies that I know will have sad endings. (I still haven’t seen Schindler’s List or any 9-11 movies for this reason.) I don’t want to spoil anything, but I think it’s fairly obvious that the titular character doesn’t opt for a career spreading joy and goodwill entertaining children at birthday parties.
Still, I do love a good backstory and was drawn in by the superhero movie vibe.
Of course, Joker is no superhero movie and is not suitable for children. It is disturbing and intense. I have also come to see it as beautifully-crafted documentary on the mental health crisis, brilliantly disguised as a mainstream movie about the origins of a pop culture supervillan.
My hope is that the hype and success of this movie will start new dialogues around the mental health issues that have bubbled up in our country. Between the increase of mass shootings in schools and public places, to the homelessness epidemic invading our large cities, something must be done.
This movie grabbed hold of me me in a way that I didn’t expect. As I watched the heartbreaking descent of the main character, Arthur Fleck, I was able to identify myriad reasons for his evil turn: the effects of bullying that stems from ignorance or low self esteem; the human propensity to recoil from people different from us; horrific child abuse and neglect; the absence of a father figure; the lack of funding for useful government programs; the damaging effect of loneliness and shame; the ease at which we trample on another person’s dignity for an easy joke; our society’s inability and unwillingness to tackle problems with no quick fix.
In this film, director Todd Phillips shows you the problems – all of them – but doesn’t give you solutions. Unfortunately, some problems remain problems because there are no easy solution.
I want there to be solutions. I want to help. But how? It’s clear that dealing with some of the most extreme cases of mental illness in a positive way requires well-trained professionals. File me under “not qualified.” After seeing the movie a second time, I finally figured out something I can do. Something we can all do.
Arthur Fleck may be fictional, but the person he represents is very real. He (and she) lives among us, but for the most part remains unseen. So many people are ignored, stepped over, and cast aside. In a world where more and more people are devastated by loneliness, this is a bigger need than ever. Kids, teenagers, adults, senior citizens…we all want to be noticed, acknowledged, and seen.
When people don’t feel seen, they seek to get attention however they can, and sometimes it leads to terrible consequences.
In the last few months, I have shared with education professionals what I believe to be their most important job: to make it their mission to notice something good about each student, and tell them. And not just a quick compliment about how well they sat still, or followed the rules that day. Something deeper. Call out the talent you see within them. Their skill with mechanical things. Their leadership skills. Their problem-solving acumen.
The thing is, we tend to downplay our strengths, which usually come easy to us. Since they come easy to us, we assume they must come easy to others as well. But that’s, as Dwight Schrute from The Office would say, “False!” Sometimes, we need someone to tell us what makes us amazing.
Many kids – and a frightening number of adults – have never had someone tell them they are smart. Or helpful. Or worth anything at all.
You never know how much of an impact a simple compliment or word of encouragement makes on a person. It’s hard to imagine how different my life would be if I didn’t have people, such as my third grade teacher Mrs. Smith, who noticed and praised my artistic abilities way back when. She asked me to draw Santa Claus for the school newsletter because she said I could draw better than her. I was flabbergasted! And the important thing is, she said it in such a way that I had no choice but to believe her.
We have a problem in our society, and it seems to be getting worse every single day. There isn’t one easy solution, but there is one real, tangible thing we can do starting today:
Notice the good in people, and share what we see in them.
Will this make it all better? No, but it will make a difference.
We are all capable of being part of the solution.
Making someone feel seen – really, truly seen – might be the most important thing you do this year.