A Monster Calls – Book/Movie Discussion
A Monster Calls is a story about suffering, grief and loss. It doesn’t just deal with grief and loss, however, it deals with shame—the shame young Connor was feeling over his conflicted feelings about his mom’s struggle with cancer.
Outwardly, Connor was a picture of hope and belief that his mother would beat cancer and live. Inwardly, however, he was hiding his feelings. He was ashamed of them and scared to admit them, to himself, much less to anyone else.
He had a recurring dream and in the dream, he was hanging to his mom who was falling off a cliff…and he let her go and she died. He told himself he let her go because he couldn’t hold on any longer, because she was too heavy. In his heart, however, he was hiding something—he was hiding that he had chosen to let her go. He could have held on longer, but he didn’t.
This was such an ugly truth, Connor couldn’t admit it to anyone, until the monster came calling. A monster came to visit and speak with Connor many times. The monster was scary, but also comforting in a way, and he wasn’t nearly as scary to Connor as facing his fears about his mother was. The monster was a welcome fear because he was a distraction from the worse things in Connor’s life. And the monster was forcing Connor to tell the truth, slowly, but surely. It was harsh love. The monster knew that, hard as it was to admit the truth, if Connor didn’t, he would regret it forever. He needed to stop hiding from his mom and the reality surrounding her, and instead embrace her and even her reality before it was too late.
The monster forced Connor to admit the truth of his dream and the truth of his feelings: he let her go because he couldn’t “stand it anymore.” “I can’t stand knowing that she’ll go! I just want it to be over! I just want it to be finished.” Connor’s dream wasn’t just a dream; it was a reflection of his feelings. He didn’t want to lose his mom, but he also didn’t want to stay in the place of limbo and suffering he’d been in while watching her die for so long, not knowing if she would live or not. He didn’t want her to die, but he also desperately wanted an end of some sort. He wanted certainty. Answers. And he was horrified by his secret truth. How awful to admit you wanted things to end because you were tired of your own suffering, when your mom’s the one suffering with cancer. How awful to admit there were times when your pain was so great you actually hoped your mom would just die so it would end. It feels like such a horrible, shameful truth, and yet, who hasn’t known this truth at some level? Connor’s mom may have been the one with cancer, but she wasn’t the only suffering from cancer. And let’s be honest, limbo is a really, really hard place to be. Death is hard, but it’s an answer. It’s a place to stand, or to fall, but it’s a hard, certain place, at least. Limbo is shifting sand’; it’s unsure footing. It’s exhausting.
Who hasn’t wrestled with this awful truth? Who hasn’t so feared losing someone or something that the immense weight of that fear actually ruined the time you had left with them? Who hasn’t felt guilty for feeling loss before actually losing something? Maybe your loved one (or pet? or even your town or church or neighborhood…?) is older and they aren’t what they used to be…and therefore you, the two of you, aren’t what you used to be either? You miss the “us” that you used to be so much that you are crushed with sorrow when you are with them…and then you are crushed by guilt for the fact that you aren’t able to simply embrace who they are now and who “you” (plural) are now and enjoy what you do have together and the time you do have left?
This is the painful, horrible but so very real and common truth that this story faces. And it does so with such grace.
Connor was afraid that he was willing his mother to die in real life because he didn’t love her enough (in real life and/or in his dream). He was afraid that if she died it would be his fault. The monster helped him face the truth, and then helped him know what wasn’t true. He also helped him understand the deeper truth. Yes, he wanted it to end. Of course he did. It was painful. But he also wanted his mom to live.
Yes, he could have held on longer. That was true. Connor, however, then assumed that her death was his fault for not holding on longer. That was not the truth. “It is not your fault… It is.” You were merely wishing for the end of pain… Your own pain. An end to how it isolated you. It is the most human wish of all.” Connor wanted to argue and say he didn’t mean it, but the monster held him honest. “You did…but you also did not.” “Your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day. You wanted her to go at the same time you were desperate for me to save her. Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.”
The monster’s solution to the contradictions in our minds is to speak the truth. This is a great lesson to take away from the story. We have to speak the truth if we wish to connect with others and if we wish to heal.
The monster also advices Connor, “You do not write your life with words… You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.” THIS is where I want to take issue with the monster’s advice. Yes, on the one hand I totally agree that even though Connor’s feelings were conflicted, his actions showed his great love for his mom. Actions are critically important. HOWEVER, words and thoughts are not irrelevant. Our thoughts are the seeds of our actions. Our thoughts are so important God commands us to take them captive and make them obedient (2 Corinthians 10:5). He doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, they aren’t important anyway.” And as for words, they reveal our heart. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). James warns us that the tongue is like a small spark which can set a forest on fire, or a rudder which can steer a whole ship (chapter 3). And God created the world with his words… Words matter and they have the power of life and death in them.
In fact, words are so important that the monster actually required Connor to speak the truth. He had to confess his feelings and fears and shame. He had to “confess his sins” to be free from them. By speaking the truth, Connor was able to let go and to heal. He’d been running from his mom and running from the truth. In the end, the monster helped him face it. Connor told his mom the truth—the real truth: He didn’t want her to go. And then, “Connor held tightly onto his mother. And by doing so, he could finally let her go.”
It’s a story of paradoxes, as God’s Kingdom usually is. He held his mom so he could let her go. In confessing the truth that he wanted her to go, he realized the deeper truth that he didn’t want her to go. His words didn’t matter because his actions proved the truth, and yet, his words did matter and he had to confess the truth so he could be free to live it.
A Monster Calls may be a book for children, to help them deal with loss, but I dare say more adults will be touched by it than kids, for not all kids who see it will yet have faced such a reality. In either case, bring your Kleenex and carve out some time to think about it and discuss it after.
Questions for Discussion:
- Have you ever felt like Connor felt? That you were secretly hoping something would end because being in the middle of it was too painful? Even if it meant something dying?
- Should Connor have been ashamed of his feelings?
- How did Connor’s feelings affect his relationship with his mother?
- How did the monster help Connor get closer to his mother so that he had no regrets?
- Do you have thoughts or feelings in your life that keep you distanced from people you love?
- How could confession help restore your relationship with people you love?
- Do your words matter or not? In what ways did they matter for Connor, and in what ways did they not?
- What do you think the monster represented? (Loss, cancer, truth, confession, fear…etc.?)
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