Thursday evening found us (Matt and James) deep in discussion in the warmth of the family condo. James had just finished watching A River Runs Through It, purportedly to give a previously thought of dumb movie a second chance. Months earlier, David Sabey, James’s new brother-in-law, had brought up the movie in conversation, when James automatically went off about how dumb and pointless the movie was. All he could remember was a guy getting sunburned naked and a bunch of random fishing. James had seen the movie on a scout trip with a bunch of immature friends who remembered nothing but a random string of unrelated events with a “river running through it”. Their deepest analysis consisted of sarcastically repeating the question, “A river runs through what?” and a friend answering, “It runs through it, whatever it is.” Their deepest wonder was in how the movie hadn’t ruined the career of Brad Pitt. David, unoffended, responded that he had actually really enjoyed the movie. James was left dumbfounded. Upon watching the movie for the second time, James learned from Matt that the movie was an absolute favorite of his older brother Josh, and that was why he and David were both familiar with it. That is a long way of saying that two previously separate families, eventually brought together, in an unforeseen way, two young men in meaningful, soul-searching discussion.
The point that we would like to focus on here is best introduced by the following conversation (which language we do not endorse) between the two brothers, as they attempted to go fishing with a friend’s brother:
Paul: Couldn't you find him?
Norman: The hell with him.
Paul: Well, I thought we were supposed to help him.
Norman: How the hell do you help that son of a bitch?
Paul: By taking him fishing.
Norman: He doesn't like fishing. He doesn't like Montana and he sure as hell doesn't like me.
Paul: Well, maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him.
For Paul, who suffered with addictions and was normally rebellious, this is one of those moments where he shined. He himself needed help but wouldn’t accept, and here he revealed that a person hard to help, even if no one can really help them, wants deeply to feel the love that is communicated when someone at least tries to help. It is hard to help people – to really help people. Sure, bringing cookies over to someone who is struggling may lift their spirits for a moment, but the problem hasn’t gone away and they are left with a plateful of unhealthy comfort food. We realized that it is hard to truly help people, since meaningful change comes from within. Furthermore, can we ever really accurately empathize with others? And if not, how could we ever know how to help them? We had both experienced times when people had tried to help us, but the help was unhelpful, fleeting, or even counter-productive. Regardless of all this, the action of trying to help does not go unnoticed. We feel sincere concern, and we know we are loved.
In A River Runs Through It, we learn through the experience of the McLean family, that love is powerful. The divisive individual problems that threaten to tear at their family are rendered powerless. Not because the problems were all solved, but because a common love, as simple as fly-fishing, welcomed them all back home and together.
As the beloved film regretfully comes to its close, the now aged brother, Norman, stands once again fishing on the same river – that treasured river that united them through everything. Norman is the last of them, and the sun is setting. Pensively he speaks these words, “each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding." Or, stated symbolically, “eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”