I’m a very visual person and the movie “Life of Pi” in 3D is a magnificently beautiful spectacle so, on a purely sensory level, the film was a delight. As the days passed after I’d seen it, however, the depth of meaning in the film came clearly into view and that profound realization became even more stunning to me.
I’m not being a spoiler to tell you that the central plot of the movie revolves around a teenaged boy named Pi who is cast adrift in the Pacific with a ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The film centers on his struggle to stay survive and eventually, to keep the tiger alive as well. As we watch Pi walk a fine line between not being eaten by the tiger and finding ways to feed both himself and the beast, we come to understand that the consuming cunning and energy required to achieve the former forced him to not succumb to despair and be sharp enough to do the latter.
But what does this have to do with recovery from heartbreak? In my work on Wife Abandonment Syndrome (WAS) that led to my book, Runaway Husbands, I heard from thousands of women who were in a parallel emotional state. They had been left out-of-the-blue from what they believed to be a happy marriage (a metaphorical cataclysmic shipwreck) and were cast adrift in hostile waters struggling to survive. The world was unrecognizable as they were seared to the bone, many starving as a result of the emotional pain (most women lose significant weight after WAS).
And just like Pi, they are obsessed with the tiger, which is, in the case of WAS, a desperate primitive need to understand how their lives changed so dramatically without warning (husbands who leave stable marriages often do not breathe a word of their plans until they suddenly bolt). These abandoned women become ragged. They are sleeplessly fixated on protecting themselves from a powerful primal force that has the power to do so much damage (the wrath of the departed husband). They can’t stop their minds from whirring night and day as they frantically try to regain a sense of recognizable reality.
In the movie, we see Pi in that same state, practically dead from exhaustion with the intensity of his focus on the tiger who could, at any moment, annihilate him. But the movie hinges on a profound realization on the part of Pi. He realizes that, although he can’t change the situation, in order to survive he has to tame the tiger and show it that he has power too. When that realization hits, he suddenly shifts from being solely the tiger’s potential victim to a new role as ringmaster, bluffing his way with big moves and loud noises to trick the tiger into submission.
In recounting his experience later, he says that he has the tiger to thank for his survival! If he did not have to go through the terrible trial of keeping the tiger from destroying him, he might have given in to the despair of having lost everything, finding himself cast adrift in the middle of the unforgiving Pacific Ocean. That obsessive state helped him develop the skills to stay alive.
Some women who experience Wife Abandonment Syndrome never make it to that moment of defiance in which they grab their lives back from despair. Instead, they wrap the injustice of abandonment around themselves like a cloak and are never able to turn their focus from the tiger to the horizon. They get stuck in the victim role and it becomes a lifelong emblem.
But most women who have gone through the lonely journey of refashioning their lives following WAS are able, like Pi, to reach down to the depth of their souls and, in the midst of destruction, find strength and a new meaning to their lives. It takes the hardest things in life to force us to locate that iron determination to fight for our survival. So for those among us who have had to struggle hard to survive and reach a new level of appreciation for the beauty in our lives, we have the tiger to thank. Thank you, Richard Parker, for making us strong and opening our eyes to what we can achieve.
I’m a family therapist and the author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal and My Sister, My Self: The Surprising Ways that Being an Older, Middle, Younger or Twin Shaped Your Life.