Anna Wheeler reflects on what the Polar Express teaches us about hope and doubt. 05/01/2021
I watched the film the Polar Express for about the 100th time this Christmas.
Faith, and lack of it, along with the innocence and loss of childhood, are big themes. There are some key one–liners from the train conductor (Tom Hanks) that seem particularly apt as we sink into this year: “it doesn’t matter where the train goes, it’s making the decision to get on it that matters.”
On the train’s journey, the film’s children are challenged, but also helped, by Doubt, ‘Hobo’ – the dishevelled, teasing spirit of a man who appears on and off in various parts of the train (also played by Tom Hanks).
This pairing of these two characters (the conductor and the spirit man) is for me, not only vital, since none of us are simply one emotion at any given time, but also theological. Hope, the conductor, and Doubt, the dishevelled, teasing spirit, are two sides of the same coin. We experience one with the other in most cases, and Christianity would argue that one needs the other in order to sustain. Three of the children become good mates – one boy seems to struggle particularly with the concept of Christmas (we’re not given details but we might assume he’s had a tricky home life, is perhaps lonely, and doesn’t come from a wealthy background) but he is valued by his two friends, never mind what his background might or might not be.
Materially the children are on the search for presents but learn a great deal more spiritually about the gifts they already have within them – and also what they need to learn and do to maintain hope and faith. The conductor makes a passing but vital comment that “sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.” We’ve all dug deep for many months and will have to dig deeper while we try and sustain what poet Emily Dickinson called dwelling in possibility in 2021. The actuality of the vaccine is within grasp – but once it is grasped, let’s not forget all we’ve endured about living with uncertainty. And its pain.
Holding onto the unseen is a real challenge now more than ever – we know what we want to see: opportunity to meet, hug and talk face to face; the chance to attend a live concert or performance, and perhaps the opportunity, to sum all of this up, to step forward to a fellow human instead of stepping back. Doubt says you must see before you believe. Hope says you have to believe in knowing what is to come and hold fast. I reckon we all feel a bit dishevelled and teased by what has passed, like the man on the train. I’d say that the best hope for this year is that we all do what we can and accept all our lows as well as any highs. And isn’t that all the seesaw of Hope and Doubt demands anyway? “One of the tests of actual faith, as opposed to bad religion, is whether it stops you ignoring things. Faith is most fully itself and most fully life–giving when it opens your eyes and uncovers for you a world larger than you thought — and, of course, therefore, a world that’s a bit more alarming than you ever thought. The test of true faith is how much more it lets you see, and how much it stops you denying, resisting, ignoring aspects of what is real.” (Rowan Williams, What is Christianity?, SPCK, 2015).
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