Why The Movie Cast Away Is Precisely About My Work

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T. 

Here we go again, back to the theatre to explain the nature of my thinking and technique. This time I’m using Tom Hank’s latest movie Cast Away as an example of what happens to us when we are in pain and how we might be freed of that by altering the way in which we see the world around us, as well as the world within us. 

Briefly, this is the story of a Federal Express executive who washes up on an uninhabited island in the Pacific after a plane crash. He is unhurt but completely alone. Prior to this, the movie portrayed this character as totally committed to his job and very much in love with his girlfriend. 

Although he figures out how to crack open a coconut, he learns that eating the indigenous crabs is going to be a problem until he somehow builds a fire. His initial efforts to do this produce nothing more than smoke and bleeding hands. 

Soon after arriving on the island, Hanks collects a small pile of Fed Ex packages from the plane crash and sorts through them. He opens all except one, and that he sets aside. At the end of the movie he says, “This package saved my life.” 

I’ve asked many people why that package “saved” the man’s life, and the vast majority tell me that it was because it gave him something to do. They say that the unopened package, still suitable for delivery, gave him a reason to live. To me, this is precisely the wrong interpretation of the movie. After all, this is the story of a man who is forced to learn that there is far more to life than delivering packages. To say that he didn’t learn that ignores the central message entirely, and, I think, to conclude that we are driven to fulfill our duties above all else says a lot about what we avoid in our own lives. 

Let’s return to Hank’s attempt to light a fire. Bleeding, terribly frustrated and angry at his own failure, he picks up a volleyball delivered in another package and hurls it. Soon after, he picks it up and sees within the bloody imprint of his own hand the possibility of a face. He adds a few strokes to give it some expression, dubs his creation “Wilson,” and begins to speak to it. In the next scene, the fuel finally ignites, and he builds a raging fire. 

I want to speak for a moment about physical pain’s ability to isolate those who suffer from it. It has been suggested that emotional pain has the tendency to bring us together, that feelings such as grief or sorrow are so commonly understood and felt that we can easily empathize with anyone else feeling those things. But physical pain separates us. Its unique qualities as felt by each of us in accordance with our own worldview and perception leaves us very much alone though we might be surrounded by highly trained and compassionate caregivers. The novelist and poet John Updike wrote of pain’s ability to isolate us: Pain… shows us what seriousness is…And shows us too, how those around us cannot get in; they cannot share our being.  Karen Fizer, confined to a wheelchair as the result of chronic pain says, You keep thinking of pain as a place you could leave, walk out and slam the last heavy door. But the pain you inhabit is a region, only your own, where your memories happen, a room no one else can come into, however close they try to stand. 

In short, people in pain are alone in some way, and, if the pain is chronic, they might even get the sense that they have been cast away, and cannot find help anyplace but within themselves. Ironically, as the social commentator Ivan Illich observes, Our personal experience of pain is now shaped by the therapeutic program designed to destroy it. If this is true, and I believe it is, the time and conditions necessary to learn what pain might teach us, what it might ask us to create, are rarely present in a typical therapy setting. Not so with our friend on the island. He is alone, and no therapist is around to distract him from his isolation and pain. He must find the answer within, and he does. 

The package Hanks sets aside is different from all the others in that it has a pair of wings hand drawn upon it, and this catches his eye, and, I suppose, his mind. I presume that he understands that what was in the package was not nearly so important as what was on the package. He honors the creativity it represents by not violating it. This is how it appears to me anyway, though the character might have been acting on a purely unconscious level. 

I ask people, “What is the first thing this man creates?” and most answer, “Wilson.” Of course, they’re right. The fact that he makes Wilson out of his own blood further reinforces my point. Notice that Wilson’s appearance and the smoke prior to the fire’s lighting are closely associated. The poetic vision of creative processes has long been that of a fire inside. When describing his discovery of his writing ability Pablo Neruda’s famous line And something ignited in my soul, fever, or unremembered wings (interesting, huh?)…and I went my own way, deciphering that fire… comes to mind. Even better is David Whyte’s last verse from Out On The Ocean, a poem about creative processes: Always this energy smolders inside-If it remains unlit-The body fills with dense smoke. 

Hanks creates Wilson out of his internal fluid, begins to speak to him, and then the fire finally lights. We would all agree that creative activity always begins in the same way, with an internal conversation. Without that, there is only productivity without the unique imprint of individual human consciousness. The juxtaposition of Wilson’s creation and the lighting of the fire are hardly coincidental, of course. There are additional examples of creative work evident in the movie as Hanks fills the walls of his cave with paintings of his girlfriend, all the while speaking to Wilson, who, of course, is himself. This is how he maintains his sanity during the four years he’s on the island. 

It is my contention that it is the creative movement that relieves our pain (see Creative Movement for Pain Relief on barrettdorko.com), and it seems that creativity ends our isolation as well. It gives us the opportunity to remake the world when it had been unmade by the predominance of pain. The cast away is saved by his willingness to create, and Simple Contact asks for that first and foremost. 

Perhaps therapists who think this movie is mainly about delivering packages should take a look at what they ask for when their patients are in pain. Beyond that, they should carefully consider whether or not there is any place or time within their departments for the internal conversations every cast away needs. Maybe when that is established, physical therapy can become the first step on the way home.