The Light Between Oceans
by Addison Cooper, LCSW
I recently had the opportunity to review The Light Between Oceans. It’s certainly a departure from the animated kids’ films that make up the bulk of my reviews on Adoption at the Movies.
The Light Between Oceans is set in post-World War I Australia. Tom is a veteran who, upon his return from the war, seeks solitude by becoming the keeper of a remote lighthouse. He marries Isabel during one of his visits to a nearby community, and then the two of them live together miles from anyone else.
Their happy life is rocked by two miscarriages. Shortly after the second one, a boat washes ashore near the lighthouse. In the boat, Tom and Isabel find a crying baby and her deceased father. Isabel encourages Tom not to report this finding; she and Tom can raise the baby as their own. Tom reluctantly goes along with Isabel’s wishes.
They name the baby Lucy and begin to raise her as their own. While the baby is still quite young, Tom learns that the baby’s mother is Hannah, a resident of his wife’s hometown. From a distance, he sees her grief, as Hannah believes that both her husband and her infant daughter were lost at sea and never recovered. Now faced with the very real consequences of his earlier decision, Tom must work to answer a seemingly impossible question. He must try to create a course of action that will not harm Isabel, Lucy, or Hannah. When Lucy is around four years old, Hannah comes to believe that Lucy is her daughter, and she pursues custody of her.
There is, perhaps, a human tendency to take sides. Your friends share a story of how someone was rude to them, and you share their anger at the perceived transgressor. We read a newspaper article about a crime that was committed, and we caricaturize the accused into a cruel villain. We hear how people are mistreated, and we lose sight of the humanness of the one who has done wrong. Empathy is good, and it is right to correctly name crime and mistreatment. However, is it possible that in trying to be empathic, we risk inwardly accepting an incomplete or incorrectly nuanced version of the truth?
If Tom and Isabel were my friends, coming to me with their grief as Hannah tries to reclaim Lucy, I would acknowledge that they should have reported Lucy, but it would also be easy to empathize with them, to feel their panic and grief, and to view Hannah as an adversary—an unreasonable woman who is threatening to break apart the family of my friends.
If Hannah was my friend, it would be easy to empathize with her, and to see Tom and Isabel as unthinkably monstrous people with no shred of goodness or compassion. It is true that Tom and Isabel did something illegal. It’s also true that they are panicked. Hannah is truly grieving and has just cause to be furious. It would be right to comfort my friends, to validate their emotions, and to stand with them through the ordeal they face. But neither caricature is true. Hannah is not unreasonable. Tom and Isabel are not without kindness. I would be reading the situation wrong if I subscribed to either caricaturized view.
I’m not sure that I’d be doing my friends a service by subscribing to an overly simplified view of the other person, either. I want to validate their experience and their emotions. I want to make space for them to express whatever they are feeling. I also want to understand the other party’s side. I believe that in understanding the other’s point of view and actions, we can view them as human, and view them with some degree of compassion, even though they are in opposition to our friends. Even though my friends’ anger is understandable, forgiveness will probably be vital for them to eventually move on in their lives.
Seeing the humanness in the other makes compassion possible. Compassion makes forgiveness possible. Forgiveness makes it possible for my friends to eventually move forward. If my friend isn’t ready for a compassionate view of the transgressor, I can hold it until they are ready. In The Light Between Oceans, forgiveness seems to have been vital for all sides as they moved forward from deeply traumatic situations.
In our professional capacity as social workers, empathy lets us build rapport with clients. It makes a safe place for our clients to share their feelings and their stories. That might be the first step toward wholeness for our clients. Forgiveness might be a much later step. An uncaricaturized view of their situation or adversaries might not be possible or helpful to our clients now, so we join them with empathy. And, by inwardly maintaining an openness to an uncaricaturized view of their situations, we will be able to help them again should they desire to move toward forgiveness.
Check out The Light Between Oceans. Can you see each side with compassion?
Addison Cooper is a licensed clinical social worker and the founder of Adoption at the Movies. His book, also entitled Adoption at the Movies is coming out in early 2017 from Jessica Kingsley Publishers.