Losing Your Life to Gain It: Guidelines for Growing Old in Up

Up is an animated film for grown-ups. Sure, it has a main character who is a child, funny talking dogs (sort of), and a fantasy element that requires a substantial suspension of disbelief — so don’t be surprised that families are drawn to it as well. Pixar movies are magnetic. They have the power to attract, even when the source of the pull is not immediately evident. Certainly Up has its share of snappy visuals; the 3-D version is particularly beautiful. But it is Pixar’s craftsmanship in showing us a story about the perils and promises of aging that makes Up rise above its animated rivals in its ability to strike an emotional chord that floats across any demographic divide. Kids will like it; but it will deeply touch adults.

[Spoiler alert: A detailed recapitulation of the plot follows.]

Carl Fredrickson is a retired balloon salesman whose biggest adventure in life is getting out of bed, making it down the stairs to the kitchen, and then completing the arduous trek from the kitchen to a chair on his front porch. He spends the rest of his day watching infomercials. And while he is a fearsome guardian of his late wife’s memory, mostly he is just waiting to die. But, as often happens when we think we know how things are going to be, life intrudes, and Carl finds himself swept into an adventure of a lifetime. Not bad for a 78-year-old.

There is a two-tiered error into which our youth-obsessed culture has fallen concerning the elderly, and Up poignantly illuminates its folly. The first is the myth of retirement. The second is our irrational fear of death and how it affects the way we navigate the latter days of our lives. As Patricia Jung points out in her essay, contained in a must-read book for baby boomers, Growing Old in Christ, “Why do we persist in stereotyping the elderly as ‘over the hill’? Partly this is a consequence of not being able to imagine that such aging has any purpose.” Is there meaningful life after 70? Up emphatically says “Yes.”

Going Nowhere or Going Somewhere

When we first meet Carl, he is a quiet, yet adventurous boy. He meets Ellie, the spunky girl from his neighborhood who has crafted her own Adventure Book. She makes him promise (“Cross your heart!”) that he will someday take her to South America so that they can set down their Explorer Clubhouse right next to the thundering Paradise Falls. She has saved out the majority of the pages in her book to fill with all of the wondrous things they will discover. In a beautiful montage that takes only a few short minutes at the beginning of the film, we watch Carl grow up before our eyes. Still a man of few words, he marries Ellie (and the look on his face shows that he cannot believe his good fortune). Together they work at the zoo. She handles exotic birds and he sells balloons. Together they rebuild their dilapidated clubhouse into a proper home, dream together, suffer loss, and, as a kind of therapy, determine to get to Paradise Falls together. Unfortunately, life keeps getting in the way. Roof repairs and blown tires keep emptying their Paradise Falls account. Despite all their planning, it seems as if they are going nowhere. Finally, the day Carl manages to purchase tickets to South America, Ellie becomes desperately ill. Realizing that she will never recover, she passes her Adventure Book to Carl. He hopes that he can fill in the rest of it for her.

When Ellie dies, Carl returns to their house, which becomes a shrine to what he had. As the years pass, all of the property around him has become a construction site for a downtown development, but Carl has refused to sell out. While machines rumble by, kicking up dirt, Carl carefully dusts the items on the mantle, making certain to put them back just so. Ellie and Carl’s chairs are just as they were on the day she left for the hospital. The house is a museum, with no room for anything or anyone new. Carl cannot even be bothered to work with eight-year-old Russell, a Junior Wilderness Explorer who knocks on his door to “be of assistance.” And when Carl’s treasured mailbox, decorated with the faded paint of his and Ellie’s handprints, is knocked loose by a careless construction worker, Carl loses it and strikes the man with his walking cane. The developers seize their chance, take Carl to court, and he is remanded to the care of a retirement home. All that he holds dear is about to be taken from him.

But there is life in the old guy yet.

When the orderlies from the Shady Oaks Retirement Home come for Carl, he is ready. He pulls a ripcord, thousands of balloons emerge, and his house rises into the air. Carl has aroused himself from his complacency to take one last big chance. He is navigating their home, their “Adventurers’ clubhouse,” to Paradise Falls. Of course, Carl shortly discovers that there is a new, inadvertent member of the Adventurers Club when Russell knocks on the door of the flying house. Carl is officially unretired. He is on a mission.

The older we get, the more of our life is behind us, and the less before us. So many people find themselves grasping tightly to the past, holding on to things as if they were holding on to life. But things are not life. The past is not life. In the Gospels, Jesus calls a man to follow Him. The man replies that he must go back to bury his father. Jesus’ reply was that the dead should bury their own dead — and again invites the man to follow him (Matthew 8:21-22). Life moves forward. Remembering the past is good — it reminds us of how we came to be who we are. But clinging to the past is death, even if you are still alive.

John Eldredge, author of Wild at Heart, argues that all men need a battle to fight, a beauty to win, and an adventure to live. But what of the elderly man who has already fought battles, won and lost his beauty, and is at the end of his life? What remains for him to do? Our culture’s response is retirement. God’s response is to retrench.

What turns Carl around is the sense that he still has something to do. He was going nowhere, but when circumstances intervened, he found that he was going somewhere. Carl thinks that the answer to his life’s malaise is a trip to Paradise Falls to keep his final promise to his wife. He is almost like an elephant seeking the burial grounds. But what he discovers is that his life’s value is not merely in what has gone before, but what is still to come. In this case, Carl is rejuvenated when he fights a new battle, wins new beauties, and sets off on a new adventure; one substantially different from the kind normally associated with risk.

Whoever Seeks to Keep His Life Will Lose It

Carl is not the only elderly man in this film. As children, Carl and Ellie idolized the young explorer Charles Muntz, vowing to follow him to Paradise Falls one day for adventures of their own. But Muntz is humiliated when a giant bird skeleton he exhibits is wrongly deemed a fraud by a geographical society. Muntz vows to go back to Paradise Falls and not to return until he captures the bird and clears his name. But when Carl and Russell finally land in Paradise Falls, they discover that Muntz is still there, seeking his elusive quarry.

So tightly does Muntz cling to his bruised pride that he has been reduced to living with dogs. In his desire for adulation, Muntz equips the dogs with collars that allow them to speak, and they, of course, tell anyone who will listen of Muntz’s virtue and genius. In the intervening years, Muntz has also become grasping, cunning, and bitter. Paranoid that someone else will find the bird first and steal his glory, it is intimated that he has killed rivals who have set down in “his” jungle.

In his initial contact with Carl, Muntz appears friendly, soaking in the adulation from this long-time fan. But when he discovers that where he has failed Russell has succeeded — not only finding, but taming the bird he has named Kevin -– Muntz becomes murderous. Rather than share the discovery, Muntz sees this as his moment of triumph and redemption. He will return to the States, prove he was right, and regain all that has been unduly denied him. He will get his life back. In his mind, only one minor difficulty stands in his way: He just has to get rid of an old man and a little boy.

Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it” (Luke 17:33). The harder we try to hold on to things the more surely they slip through our fingers. Muntz wastes the best years of his life alone in a jungle trying to disprove a false allegation. He has had a good life and wants it back. To regain his status, he allows his morality to erode. And, in the end, in order to perpetuate a lie — that he rather than Russell found the bird — he tries to kill Carl and the boy. In his attempt to win back his fame, however, Muntz is the one who loses: his pride, his ethics, and his life.

Whoever Loses His Life Will Preserve It

For most of the film, Carl is literally tied to his house. Carl’s house represents all that is good about his past. In it he has the mementos that remind him of his wonderful life with his late wife: the his-and-hers chairs, their bed, her painting of Paradise Falls. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the events of our lives, but the house had become an idol to Carl. Like Muntz, Carl put the dead past before living people (and an endangered Kevin).

Carl’s defining moment comes when he is forced by Muntz to choose between keeping his promise to Russell to safeguard Kevin and see her safely home to her babies (Kevin, we later discover, is a she) or saving the house, which Muntz is trying to burn down. Initially, Carl chooses the house. But when Russell decides, at great personal risk, to fly after Muntz’s air ship to rescue Kevin, Carl has an epiphany.

With his balloons partially deflated, Carl cannot get his house off the ground to pursue Russell. Carl is literally weighed down by his past. In a moving scene, Carl goes into the house and pushes out all of the furniture, all the emblems of his past, and all of his personal comfort. The house, and Carl, are liberated — free to rescue Russell and Kevin, and to engage in a new adventure.

Jesus did say, “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it” but He finished that sentence with, “and whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33). Life is not meant to be “kept” — at least not by us. Life is to be given away. By keeping it, we kill it. In giving it away, we live.

The Purpose of Getting Old

As people get older, they see less and less of life before them, so they are tempted to retire from active pursuits and, instead, chase and hold fast to what has passed. We yearn for our glory days, replaying our golden moments while present opportunities slip by. (Even the best efforts to save someone’s life are futile. They only postpone death — and, even then, only for a little while.) The only New Testament reference to retirement that I can think of is the one where a man has done well, so he builds bigger barns to store his stuff so that he can sit back, take his ease, and “eat, drink, and be merry.” The day his preparations are complete, he dies (Luke 12:16-21). The moral of the story is don’t cling to the past, or rest on your laurels. We have been given, by God, lives to live. We should live them until we squeeze out every last drop of life.

As far as I know, no one has yet written a Wild at Heart for the elderly. I am not certain that anyone has to. The principles remain the same, though the understanding of “adventure” may need to be modified. When Carl chooses to save the house instead of Kevin, he puts out the flames and walks through the door. He tries to rearrange the furniture, to put his life back together. He goes to a closet and discovers his wife’s Adventure Book. He turns to the part where he thought she had saved out pages on which to write all of the things she would do once she arrived at Paradise Falls. Accidentally turning a page, he discovers that she had filled them all with photos and captions of their long marriage — a grand adventure, in her eyes. At the end, she writes that he is now to go on more adventures of his own.

Ellie’s reconceptualizing “adventure” to include the journey of their life together demonstrates that, viewed rightly, even the most mundane activities possess tremendous value. Carl returns home with Russell and becomes his surrogate grandfather. Carl keeps living, giving himself away, and teaching Russell the lessons of manhood — including the importance of keeping one’s promises. Snapshots of their relationship fill the adventure book of Carl’s life. He is no longer waiting to die, he is dying to live.

Solomon wrote, “A gray head is a crown of glory; it is found in the way of righteousness” (Proverbs 16:31). To gain the glory, you have to live the life. There is no age limit, and no retirement clause. If one has lived rightly, the purpose of getting old is to show the way to those who are younger. We are all in the midst of a long cross-country race. Some are near the beginning, climbing their first hill. Others, who are in the middle, may be trudging through a dark valley. Both can learn a lot from those runners whose perseverance has placed them within sight of the finish line. Before you cross it, be sure to look back and shout instructions and encouragement to those trying hard to follow in your steps.

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