Lady in the Water is one of my favorite M. Night Shyamalan movies. Adapted from a bedtime story he created for his children, the movie flopped in American theaters, and Michael Bamberger subsequently argued in his book, The Man Who Heard Voices, that Shyamalan gambled his career on a fairy tale and lost.
Despite this, Lady in the Water is a very rewarding film and was unfairly panned by the film community. The story has a great deal of spirituality and philosophy to it. I’ll avoid repeating the story at length here, as you can read it on the IMDb website (or watch it for the first time perhaps), but it begins with a tale of how, in the distant past, the human race was inspired by beings that served as moral guardians and muses to humankind.
Shyamalan’s movies are often billed incorrectly and suffer upon release as a result. The Village was marketed as a scary movie, but was not strictly a horror flick. The Village is also worth watching, but audiences did not get what was promised by the previews, and it was underwhelming for the film community in general. The same could be said with The Happening, but I quite enjoyed the movie: it was a fairly original concept for a horror film. And despite the criticism of some that The Happening offered a ridiculous concept of plant vs human warfare, the concept of plant pheromone defenses and the evolution of toxins are well-established ones in biology. It is, in fact, not such a ridiculous concept for a horror film, which also contained a message about humankind’s relationship to the planet. However, the end of The Happening does come off as a little preachy, and audiences felt bludgeoned over the head with the moral of the tale.
Lady in the Water also takes on notions of human civilization, and harkens back to Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael that humans have somehow lost a vital part of themselves through civilization and its ideology of progress. Krishnamurti once observed, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” M. Night Shyamalan evokes this same sentiment with Lady in the Water. The themes contained in the film seem unappreciated by both audiences and critics alike. This is typical for films that question the core of what we consider to be the merits of our civilization and of modern technology. The re-make of The Day the Earth Stood Still with Keanu Reeves is another solid film that was largely unsuccessful because of its strong overtones of criticism for the so-called vaulted successes of technological progress and modern Capitalist globalism.
Aside from these points, there is also a clear line of spirituality in the film, which is the real purpose of this article. In the film, no one destined to help the Narfs actually knows who they are or what they are meant to do, yet they must discover these things for themselves. This falls into line with concepts of new-age spirituality that the meaning of life is realized through creating our identity and by having meaningful relationships with others. A self-chosen goal is no less meaningful than an assigned one. Life may not actually have any inherent meaning, but that does not detract from the fact that even if we assign some meaning to our lives, our choice is meaningful in itself.
As the current Dalai Lama suggested, the greatest purpose of life is to “try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.” It has also been said that “the Earth says much to those who listen.” Isn’t that what Shyamalan is suggesting with this story? That the universe has wisdom if one simply pays attention? Couldn’t it be said that our great philosophers and thinkers promoted a meaningful system of truth through pondering the meanings of the observable cosmos?
Lady in the Water carries a message that doesn’t often resonate in American society: that for all of our success, we are still remarkably unadvanced as a civilization. The fact that the world population increases even as 40,000 humans starve to death every day is a symptom of a people who have not fully realized the value of life yet. That we ignore the value of life among non-human species is another sign of our miserable values. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Albert Schweitzer once said, “Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” That humans spend so much capital to constantly prepare for war due to geo-political differences is also a symptom of a dysfunctional civilization. Hadn’t Socrates been correct when he claimed that he was a citizen of the world, and not just of Athens?
Carl Sagan also saw the truth in this statement. He implored humankind with his famous declaration about the rarity of life in the cosmos and that the insignificance of the “little blue dot” of Earth calls on humans to step back from the precipice of destruction and realize that all life ought to be valued, if only by virtue of its rarity in the universe.
Shyamalan has created a beautiful allegory in this film: a writer of great wisdom who would knowingly sacrifice his own life for the betterment of mankind. A world in which each person has a special role that they have to discover for themselves, and through it, they can fulfill an important role for society. Isn’t this the same as believing that every person has a talent to offer the world and that they will find their greatest joy in employing it to the betterment of mankind? Isn’t it a greater thing to leave the Earth better than how you found it and not to quantify your worth as merely the numerical quantity of how much money you earned? Is it not better to give yourself freely in your relationships and be a valuable friend, parent, sibling, or lover, and to make a difference in the lives you touch?
The greatest thing one can do with his life is to create something that will outlast it. Whether this is raising children or creating something that will live on after death does not devalue the significance of the contribution. You are here because of the collected toil of your ancestors in an unbroken line back to the origin of life on this planet. You may see signs of obvious effort from your parents and grandparents to provide you with opportunities for success and happiness greater than what they had. If you cannot see such effort in your upbringing, perhaps you can break the cycle and offer such love to your own children.
Bruce Lee once said, “In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.” It is a truly unfortunate soul who finds himself without any talent to enrich his life and the world. I’d like to believe that we all have something we’re good at; it would be a great thing if we created a society where people could develop talents that enrich the world rather than merely accept it and its machinations of dull work without any meaningful sense of contribution. All great writers, poets, and thinkers have toiled in deprivation as they explored great ideas and created works of art while trying to “make a living.”
Art has much to offer humankind; humans are innate storytellers. We have always had our stories; self-expression provides a meaningful outlet for human values which can enrich our awareness for the gift of being alive. Life may not be perfect for anyone, but it is not to be wasted. Each of our births was an unlikely event. Had only one of your ancestors died from warfare, disease, or drudgery before they had a chance at having children, your existence would never have been, and the world would not have missed you.
Be grateful for your chance at life. We may not all receive the same comforts and privileges. Most of us do not have a trust fund and cannot go to Ivy League schools like Harvard or Yale, yet we can still attempt to live a life of meaning, and contribute positively to the happiness of others. To make the world better for others ought to be a common value for everyone. That we have a society that equates success to gross salary of fiat money is one of the greatest sicknesses of our society. Though it is understandable that our parents want us to be financially secure, the greatest accomplishments are made by those who risked their own comfort by daring to pursue their dreams and aspirations over the comforts of material success.
© David Metcalf