On Truth, Personal Responsibility, Love, and the Face of God: Lessons from the film “Dead Man Walking”


(Warning: Contains spoilers!)

If you’re not familiar with the movie, “Dead Man Walking,” watch it. It’s an incredibly well-acted and beautifully written and moving film; a film that will likely linger with you (long) after it’s over.

In the film, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), befriends a death row inmate, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), who reaches out to her by mail initially under the auspices that he’s not guilty of the horrific crime he’s been sentenced to death for. But as she continues getting to know Poncelet and his story, she soon begins to suspect that what he’s told her about his part in the crime is not the truth. And so as the last minute appeals are denied one after another, Prejean’s task becomes one of helping to redeem Poncelet and help him to die well—that is, to die with dignity, with a clear conscience, with no hatred or lies in his heart.

It’s a beautiful film, with a message for all of us, meaning that even though most of us have done nothing even in the heinous ballpark of what Poncelet did, we all have our “sins”—meaning, bad, even wicked conscienceless hurtful things we’ve done to others in moments of weakness and fear, that we probably ought to own up to before we die/before it’s too late. Because the reality is we’re each dead men (and women) walking. We all owe a death; it’s the final installment or payment on being alive—and likely the costliest and most difficult installment to pay well.

And part of living a truly meaningful and dignified and decent life means taking responsibility for our actions. It means not get sucked into an easy out—an “easy out,” meaning, a path of lessor resistance, a path which curses the effect on us of our past actions and yet at the same time sows more seeds of future suffering. And the easiest easy out is to get sucked into continuing to blame others or society or even our upbringing for the quality of our lives. As Bruno Bettleheim put it: “Blaming others or society is the child’s privilege, but if an adult continues to abnegate responsibility it is yet another step in personal disintegration and destruction.” To live a meaningful and dignified and worthy life, we have to begin living more consciously, more honestly and self-awarely, stop making so many excuses for ourselves, and begin facing the reality that all along we have been making choices—and that oftentimes the choice was to blame others and pretend like we didn’t have a choice or make a choice. And this is perhaps the most damning lie that we can tell ourselves—that it wasn’t possible for us to choose otherwise—because it absolutely brings to an immediate halt and undercuts any attempts at personal growth and changing one’s life for the better. As Stephen Covey put it, “Until a person can say deeply and honestly, ‘I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,’ that person cannot say, ‘I choose otherwise’” (from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”). More to the point, that person cannot change and truly grow and heal.

From: “Dead Man Walking“—this is my slight rewrite of the movie, I have done so in order to help translate the film to print

The scene: Near the end of the movie, a cell on death row, about 28 hours before Poncelet’s scheduled execution the following night. Poncelet and Prejean are alone in the cell.

Prejean: Let’s talk about what happened. Let’s talk about that night.

Poncelet: I don’t want to talk about that.

Why?

Because I’m pissed off! I’m pissed at the kids for being parked. I’m pissed at myself for letting Vitello (his accomplice) get them kids. . . . And I’m pissed at their parents for coming to see me die. . . . Oh l got a thing or two I want to say to the Percys and the Delacroixs.

You want your last words in this life to be words of hatred?

Clyde Percy wants to inject me himself!

Well, think about it, Matthew; think of how angry he must be. He’s never gonna see his daughter again. He’s never gonna hold her, love her, laugh with her. You have robbed these parents. They have nothing in their lives anymore but sorrow and unimaginable pain; no joy. And that is what you gave them. . . . So why were you in the woods?

I told you, I was stoned!

Don’t blame the drugs, Matthew. You had been harassing couples for months before this happened. So what was it?

What do you mean?

Did you look up to Vitello? Did you think he was cool? Did you want to impress him?

I don’t know.

You could have walked away.

He woulda went psycho on me.

Don’t blame him! . . . Matthew, you blame him, the government, drugs, blacks, the Percys, the Delacroixs. You blame the kids for being there. But what about you?—what about Matthew Poncelet? Where’s he in this story? What?—is he just a victim?

I ain’t no victim.

But you’re not taking responsibility, Matthew. Time’s ticking away. You’ve got death breathing down your neck and you’re still playing your little con-man games and looking for loopholes.

The scene: It’s the next day, the same cell on death row, only hours before Poncelet’s scheduled midnight execution. Poncelet is alone in his cell, Prejean enters. She looks at him, Poncelet looks different, and he is looking at Prejean differently.

Prejean: What, Matt? What is it?

Poncelet: (thoughtful) Earlier today when I was saying my goodbyes, my mama kept saying, ”It was that damn Vitello.” She always regrets that I got involved with him. But I didn’t want her thinking that—that it was him and not me. Something you said got me thinking, Sister. . . . I could’ve walked away. . . . But I didn’t. I didn’t. . . .. I wasn’t a victim; I was a fucking chicken. He (Vitello) was older than me and tough as hell. And I was just boozing up and trying to be as tough as him. But I couldn’t. He was bad; but I didn’t have the guts to stand up to him. I told my mama this—that I was yellow. But she kept saying, ”It wasn’t you, Matt. It wasn’t you, Matt. It wasn’t you.”

Your mama loves you, Matt.

But it was me, Sister. It was me. I had a choice. I made a choice. You know that boy—

Walter?

Yes, Walter— 

What? What Matthew?

Well I killed him. I shot him in the back of the head. I shot him like he was nothing. I shot him because I wanted to prove how tough I was. I shot him because I was too scared to stand up for myself. I shot him because I was a coward. I treated him—Walter—like he was nothing at all because I was a coward.

Oh Matthew. . . . And Hope? 

No, ma’am.

No? . . . Did you rape her?

Yes, ma’am, I did. I did horrible things to those kids.

Then you’re taking responsibility, Matthew?—for both of their deaths?

Yes, ma’am. (Sobbing) Yes ma’am, I do. (Sobbing) . . . . When the lights dimmed last night, I kneeled, and I prayed for them kids and their families. I ain’t never done that before. I felt so alone. I feel so bad for them. How could I have done what I did? Why did I have to do it? Why? . . .

Oh, Matthew. There are spaces of sorrow that only God can touch. You did a terrible thing, Matt, a terrible, hideous thing. You ended two young innocent lives and you robbed those two families of their children. You treated those kids—those human beings—like they were disposable to you, you treated them like they were here for you to do what you wanted with them. But they weren’t. . . . And now you’re facing the truth, Matthew, and doing so has set you free—the truth has made you free. You’ve known the truth all along, but now you’re admitting it, facing it finally, not lying any more about it. And because you’re doing this and taking responsibility for your actions, Matthew, there’s real dignity in this: You have a dignity now. And nobody can take that from you. You are a son of God, Matthew Poncelet.

Nobody ever called me no son of God before, Sister. I’ve been called a son of you-know-what lots of times, but never no son of God. . . . l just hope my death can give them parents some relief.

Maybe the best thing you can give to the Percys and the Delacroixs is this is to let them know this remorse and regret that you feel—to feel their pain, and not hide from their anger—the anger that you brought into their lives. You can give them that, Matthew, and a wish for their peace.

If I could, I would do things differently; I wouldn’t do what I did. I’d be stronger, you know. I never had no real love myself. Never loved a woman or anybody else. I would want to love. It figures I’d have to die to find love.

Matthew, I want the last thing you see in this world to be a face of love. So you look at me when they do this thing. You look at me. And I’ll be the face of love for you.

Yes, ma’am. Thank you, for loving me.

Thank you, Matthew.

 

To truly love another person is to see the face of God.” – Victor Hugo, “Les Miserables

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Confession—a truly heartfelt and thorough confession—what in recovery circles is referred to as making a full and searching and fearless moral inventory—is the first step to real personal growth and true mental health and healing. The truth will set us free. But only if we face it and confess it fully. To confess the truth partially is to still to lie, and lying will not set us free.  But admitting the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth, and taking personal responsibility—ceasing to grumble and blame society, others, our upbringing, et cetera, but instead focusing on ourselves and the choices we’ve made and are making, becoming conscious of these choices instead of denying them—is what will set us free.

Yes, to be sure, external things as well as the past certainly exert an influence on us and have-wired us limbically and even intellectually a certain way. But they do not get the last word in who we are—they do not get the last word in who we become.

We get the last word in who we become if—if—we take responsibility for ourselves, for our choices, and face the (potentially terrifying) truth about how we’ve lived, what we’ve done, the choices we’ve made, and who we’ve become. —And the worse and less courageously we’ve lived, the more terrifying the truth will be for us. As John wrote in his Gospel (paraphrasing): “The light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were wicked. For everyone who does evil things hates the light and is ashamed, and so in his shame does not come towards the light, but instead hides from the light so that his or her deeds may not be exposed. But whoever lives truthfully comes to the light so that his deeds may be seen clearly. . . . ” (John 3:19-21)

We’re all dead men and women walking. We all owe a death. The problem is that unlike Poncelet, for most of us the hour of our death is unknown. And that uncertainty as to when—not if, but when—is what gives us the wiggle room that allows us to live badly, to lose perspective and live and make choices as if life goes on forever (or at least a lot longer than it likely will). Castaneda said that death is the only wise advisor we have. I would revise that statement and say that death is one of only two wise advisors we have—the other being God or God’s point of view—what’s best in us, what does our conscience say, asking honestly what is the Loving and truly mature and courageous thing to do. If we learn how to consult both of these advisors more and more in life—and more and more when we’re making decisions—especially potentially big decisions, then we’ll be crafting a habit that will serve us well. We will be learning to begin with the end in mind—the end, meaning death and what will be important to us at that moment. And thus we will be living and making decisions more truthfully—and honorably.

 

Let death and banishment and rejection and misfortune and every other thing that appears dreadful and that you’d rather ignore, be before your eyes daily, but most of all death, and you will never again think anything petty or cowardly or mean, nor will you ever desire anything discursive or extravagant again.” —Epictetus

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You know, Westmoreland made all of us officers write our own obituaries during Tet, when we thought The Cong were gonna end it all right there. And, once we clued into the fact that life is finite, the thought of losing it didn’t scare us anymore. The end comes no matter what, the only thing that matters is how do you wanna go out, on your feet or on your knees? I bring that lesson to this job. I act, knowing that someday this job will end, no matter what. You should do the same.” – from the motion picture “The Kingdom

 

There’s no way out of this alive. No one gets out of here alive. We all have to die. And all of those we love and depend on also will die. And we must not let the uncertainty as to when we and others will die provide us with the wiggle room to live and love badly, pettily, to use others, to run from ourselves and our fears, to lie, to live and love like we’re not dead men walking and like we and those we love will never die. Because once we lose perspective and start living a life unmindful of the end—a life of denial, avoidance, dishonesty—we become shameful creatures and we leave the door open in ourselves for evil, for real inhumanity and abuse and cruelty—and all in the name of preserving our comfort and not having to face our fears and be overwhelmed by them—by what will one day unavoidably have the upper hand on us. Carpe diem—seizing the day—isn’t about living a frenzied life, ramping up our living in denial and living more hedonistically and superficially. Just the opposite, it’s about facing reality, beginning with the end in mind, and not living superficially, not living as a coward, not tranquilizing ourselves with what is trivial and will not mean anything to us as we’re dying or when we get the cancer diagnosis or one of our children has died. Carpe diem—living deeply and sucking the marrow out of life—means living very consciously, deliberately, mindfully, with gratitude, appreciation, kindness, openness, honesty, depth, substance. It means not worrying so damn much about our own comfort. It means getting out of the shallows and into the depths where life reveals its secrets (Rilke).

Confession—his level of honesty and perspective—is a huge part of being reborn, of a metanoia—of a profound change of heart and mind and life direction—or, if you don’t want it to sound so biblical or religious, then just call it growing up and being a better human being.

Confession—confessing our sins, really feeling the pain in others that we’ve put there because of what we’ve done, making our amends, correcting the past, sincerely desiring to exchange places with those we’ve hurt (meaning genuinely being willing to take the bullet or the hit, instead of making someone else take it for us)—is a sign of real growth, real psychological and spiritual health and strength. And it’s a sign that we’re not lost—that we haven’t lost perspective, but instead have found it, that we’re finally putting ourselves on some really truly solid ground, instead of the fleeting groundlessness of living in denial and living superficially.