“Find your why,” Will Smith’s character, Howard, asked from the screen. It wasn’t three minutes into Collateral Beauty and I could have given a standing ovation and left satisfied. Maybe it was Smith’s charisma or the emotional rise I get from being in a movie theatre, or maybe it was the question itself. Can’t be sure. But I decided to stick around, because I know how movies work—very rarely do they end before the opening credits do. And I’m glad I did, because by the end of Collateral Beauty—which was left so perfectly undone—I was sorrowfully, wonderfully, full.
Love. Time. Death. The universal whys. These three abstracts are what gives life meaning. Love, because it is the greatest expression of human joy. Time, because it is uncontrollable, and we must live by its hands. And death, because without death, time and love have no value. The universal whys might take the form of a person or goal or lifelong motivation for each person, and it’s the reason each one of us gets up in the morning.
But what happens when your why is gone?
Howard’s why was six years old when she died. She was his only daughter. The collateral damage from her death was Howard’s divorce, the implosion of his work life, and a set-in depression that he couldn’t shake. All the expected results of losing a child.
Three years later, Howard was hopelessly alone. Unable to make decisions, do his job, respond to friends, or even sleep. Each day when he went to work, all he could do was build magnificent domino designs, only to push the first block down as he walked out the door. The dominos tumbled in a beautiful, sorrowful kind of way. Every single day.
You can tell Howard knew it wasn’t right. That he wasn’t supposed to be like this three years hence. But he didn’t know what to do. Until finally, he rose in the middle of the night—his dreams of her wouldn’t allow him to rest—and wrote to those three universal whys.
Love. Time. Death.
They had failed him. Love betrayed him. Time wouldn’t bend its rules. And death wouldn’t trade his life for hers.
He wrote the letters. Scathing letters. Letters filled with hate, anger, bitterness, despair, and sorrow. It was an attempt at closure. And then he mailed them, expecting to never see them again.
But, of course, he did.
A Christmas Carol in Reverse
Though the movie is not a “Christmas movie,” it does take place during the season, which intensified Howard’s sense of loss. And though it wasn’t a direct parallel, the abstracts served Howard much like Scrooge’s three spirits of Christmas past, present, and future. Scrooge’s spirits turned him from miser to philanthropist, but the abstracts Howard wrote to had turned him from visionary to an empty frame of what he once was.
So Love, Time, and Death visited him, literally, in the flesh, to respond to his letters. It went well for them—they were actors hired to play the abstracts (or were they?). It went less well for Howard, who thought he was losing his mind—which was the goal of the actors’ employers, also Howard’s coworkers.
When Love, Time, and Death came to Howard in the flesh, they didn’t turn him like Scrooge’s. Instead they let him be the grieving father he needed to be. They gave him the space to have it out with the abstracts—now tangible entities. They gave him permission to feel. To weep. To be angry. To finally face the universal whys that had let him down so bitterly.
But here’s the thing: Love, Time, and Death didn’t come to make him into the jovial, vivacious leader he had been. Instead, they came to help him see the depths of love, time, and death—the depth of beauty—that is only attainable in the presence of devastation.
“The stars shine brightest at night,” so the platitude goes. And, to be honest, it’s true.
But platitudes are rarely helpful when you lose your six-year-old daughter. Or when you come out of remission and know you can’t fight another round. Or when your eleven-year-old likes her stepdad and hates you, and makes sure to tell you. Or when you realize you’re never going to be a mom.
There are some joys that are never known except in the moments of devastation.
It’s just a matter of seeing the Collateral Beauty.