I was intrigued by Nebraska, the movie that depicts a road trip between an aging father and his grown son.
My dad is charming and sharp-witted. He purposefully keeps mentally and physically active, but still is more fortunate than many his age who suffer from dementia and other diseases that rob them of the ability to think clearly and communicate effectively. My mom, for example, struggled to find the right words and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years before she died.
So, when I see a younger person dismiss an older person’s ability or treats them disparagingly, I am troubled. Sadly, I won’t say I know precisely how to treat a parent or friend with dementia. But the NebraskaNebraska movie offers some insights.
A road trip has the capacity to transform a relationship
The film follows a father (Woody) and son (David) as they travel from their home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska so they can attempt to claim a sweepstakes prize. Woody has received a letter that he believes entitles him to one million dollars. He wants to walk hundreds of miles to collect his winnings. David makes a safer, though not necessarily saner, offer to drive his dad to the sweepstakes office.
Their trip includes a stop in Woody’s hometown, a small town in Nebraska. There, he visits with dysfunctional family members. He also encounters a former business partner and nemesis, who initially acts like a friend but reveals himself as self-centered and self-serving.
The movie is shown in black and white and the action is slow moving. Unless they are really sensitive to the needs of older adults, your kids probably won’t like Nebraska. But if you are aware of the imperfections in your life that seem to worsen as you age, then you might enjoy this darkly comedic look at brokenness.
Circumstances may stay the same but your perspective on relationships can be altered
What intrigued me most about the movie was the subtle transformation of the relationship between father and son. They weren’t fully reconciled to each other or the past. But they learned to live with the tension between them, between harsh reality and hope, between dysfunctional and perfectly well-adjusted.
Here are lessons on improving and restoring relationships, gleaned from Nebraska:
Don’t marginalize people who are not like you
This film delivered the one thing I expected: you can interact with a friend or family member who suffers from dementia or a similar disease in a way that protects them without marginalizing them.
Though initially frustrated at his dad’s irrational thinking that he is a million-dollar sweepstakes winner, David makes the decision to take the trip with his father to claim the prize. He senses that his father is as much lonely and frustrated as delusional, and could benefit from the hope and adventure that a road trip provides. Instead of constantly condemning Woody for his current problems and past failures (like his mother and brother), David accepts his dad’s condition and enjoys their quirky moments together. Along the way, he strives to protect his father from his predatory family and past friends without challenging his sense of self.
Interestingly, the film takes the concept of marginalizing other people a step beyond the usual parent/child or older-adult/younger-adult conflict. A few disturbing yet funny scenes show David’s cousins (one of whom is a registered sex offender) ridiculing him for his relative normalcy. This aspect of the story reinforces the idea that we often look down on other people simply because they are different, not because their behavior is deviant.
Remember there are multiple perspectives to every situation
We often think we know everything about a person or situation, whether we’ve heard their life stories or not. But we can become more accepting and compassionate if we learn about their struggles growing up and navigating adulthood.
As David gets reacquainted with his aunt, uncle, and cousins, and meets some of his father’s contemporaries, he starts to see his dad’s life story from a different perspective. In one scene, details about his parents emerge through a conversation with one of Woody’s ex-girlfriends. David discovers that his father has nearly always had faulty judgment and misplaced trust. These problems seemed to have been caused or worsened by the trauma of the Korean War.
These revelations help David grasp that his father’s shortcomings and difficulties resulted from many issues, not simply failures associated with his alcoholism and shortsightedness.
You either brighten or darken someone’s day
I used to think that most of my actions were neutral in terms of their impact on other people. Some may have been positive, and generally those outweighed the negative. Based on insights from this film, though, I realize that there are two ways to affect other people: good or bad.
Nearly all of the interactions that Woody had with his family and former colleagues affected him negatively. David realizes that his parents left their hometown to distance themselves from these circumstances. Sadly, though, the impact on his father’s self-image remained.
Being kind and treating people fairly can influence them for many years or even a lifetime. Sure, they can control their reaction to what other people say or do, but many have difficulty recovering from assaults on their character and self-esteem, especially if there are no supporting characters in their lives.
Stop trying to change people for a better future, just enjoy them now
The one thing you (hopefully) learn from having a parent with a mind-wasting disease is that you need to enjoy people and moments, as they are. For example, my mom still enjoyed taking walks with my dad, doing water aerobics, and visiting with friends and family even when she could barely remember our names. Similarly, a friend’s mom with Alzheimer’s loves cutting the grass with a riding lawnmower; my friend knows joy that comes from a yard well tended is sufficient for her.
In the film, David comes to terms with the fact that his father’s financial situation won’t get better or his condition, improve. The purpose of their journey is to spend time together, reveling in the good and not-so-good times. In the end, David gives his father a cherished moment. When the son delights in the father’s happiness, you can see that David has allowed himself to be changed by accepting his dad, not trying to fix him.