A few years ago, I landed in Ben Gurion Airport in Israel without a working cell phone. I had contracted with a car service to pick me up, but time was passing and the driver was nowhere in sight. I began to get panicky because of my inability to contact my driver, and decided to ask someone to borrow a cell phone. The first person to whom I spoke told me he could not lend me his cell since it was running low on power and he needed to conserve power to insure that he could contact his family. The second person I addressed happily lent me his phone and I was able to reach my driver.
I thought of this incident as I watched a scene in The Impossible, a gripping narrative of a family’s survival after being caught in the deadly 2004 tsunami in Thailand. Swept along in a flood, the Bennett family is separated. Husband Henry, mother Maria, and sons Lucas, Tomas, and Simon are tossed by powerful waves and wind up isolated from one another. Henry desperately wants to make a phone call to determine the safety of his family and at first is rebuffed by someone whose cell phone is low on power; but a second request is answered and Henry can finally make his call. It is a touching scene that reminds us how important is the kindness of strangers when one is in dire straits.
Maria and Lucas soon find one another and set about to locate a safe haven. However, Maria spots a small boy alone crying for his family. She insists that they rescue him in spite of Lucas’s protestations that this detour will place them more at risk. Maria reminds him that the child could have been their missing sibling and Lucas acquiesces.
Kindness in the face of adversity is a central theme of The Impossible. When Maria is finally found by locals and taken to the hospital, she encourages Lucas to help reunite families. Lucas collects names and tries to match them as he scours the crowded hospital corridors. When someone recognizes a name he has called, Lucas is overcome with joy, a joy that intensifies when he actually witnesses a father and son reunite. As his search to bring together family members continues, Lucas moves from focusing on self to focusing on others.
There is a compelling story in Genesis in which Abraham prays for Abimelech, king of Gerar, who, thinking that Abraham’s wife Sarah was his sister, took Sarah into his royal home. As a result, the Bible tells us, all the wombs of Abimelech’s household were closed and no one could bear children. Abraham prayed that they be healed and they were.
The next section in the Bible details the story of the birth of Isaac, who was born to Sarah at the age of ninety after many years of infertility. The great medieval commentator Rashi, quoting a passage in the Talmudic tractate of Baba Kamma, states that the juxtaposition of these two narratives teaches us that if someone prays for mercy on behalf of another when he himself needs that very same thing, he is answered first. This conceptually represents what happens to Lucas. When he shows compassion for others and is concerned for their welfare, he himself is rewarded with the survival of his own family.
The Impossible depicts the chaos that surrounds any rescue mission after a large natural disaster. Survivors search for loved ones, identities are confused in the ensuing hours and days, and medical help is hard to find. The narrative of the Bennett family reminds us of the enduring bond between all survivors of a catastrophe and of the need to be involved with the destiny of all, not the destiny of one.