What’s wrong with our world?
What can we do about it?
These are the two questions asked by movie director Tom Shadyac in his documentary, “I Am.” Last night I watched the documentary for the first time on Netflix, and while I understood the inherent idealism of the film, I still gleaned a lot of useful and thought-provoking information from it.
The documentary begins with Shadyac telling his story; he was a struggling filmmaker who quickly became popular directing Jim Carrey films like Ace Ventura and Bruce Almighty. His wealth increased in an instant, but he didn’t find happiness in his large California home. When a biking accident left him with Post Concussion Syndrome, he felt his world falling apart. After months of intense pain, his symptoms inexplicably lessened. His resulting mindset was that throughout his life, he had had it all wrong. Wealth and greed were not the answer to the world’s problems. So he went on a search to find out what is.
Shadyac interviewed eighteen people, from his father, Richard Shadyac, one of the founders of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was a prominent activist in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He interviewed scientists and psychologists, photographers and authors. And from these various intelligent voices, Shadyac learned about the underlying problems of our world and how we can solve those problems.
One facet of Shadyac’s documentary that I found particularly interesting was the contrast of self-interest versus cooperation. Many scientists claim that people are predisposed to competition and self-interest, which feeds consumerism and the economy. But throughout many of the interviewed scientists’ research, they discovered the science of cooperation; empathy and compassion are as much a part of our DNA as competition and desire are. Even animals practice democracy in their everyday lives, from deer voting for which watering hole to go to, to birds continuously voting which direction to fly with their flock.
Many of Shadyac’s interviewees went even further with that, saying that a huge problem that we have today is viewing each person as separate. At first when I heard this, I was startled. One of my proudest achievements in the past year has been becoming more independent and comfortable with who I am apart from others. But the interviewees weren’t condemning independence and self-sufficiency, but rather emphasizing that everything in the world is connected.
For example, there is increasing evidence that human emotions for whatever reason affect magnetic fields. Shadyac and scientist Rollin McCraty did an experiment that showed the magnetic field of bacteria in yogurt being affected by Shadyac’s emotions as they were talking. And research has shown that the earth’s magnetic field increased sharply during the 9/11 attacks and other tragedies, like the 2004 Tsunami.
This seemed a bit ridiculous at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. It sounds idealistic, but we’re all connected. As human beings, we’re all connected to each other by the air we breathe, the nutrients we need, and the bodies that we have. We’re not separate from nature, but a part of it. As soon as we realize this, the boundaries between the rich and the poor, the Global North and the Global South, different races, and difference religions start to fall away. We’re all united by science, by anatomy, by nature.
But one thing that the rest of nature has figured out that we modern humans still lack is the understanding that you shouldn’t take more than you need. Plants don’t take in more water than they need, and most animals eat only what is necessary. Radio host Thom Hartmann explained that in certain Native American cultures, taking more than you need is considered a sign of mental illness.
This is the kind of philosophy that Shadyac adopted. He sold his house and most of its expensive furnishings and moved into a mobile home. He stopped flying privately and started riding his bike to work. And he still firmly believes in the power of compassion and empathy in a world marked by self-interest and greed.
The documentary concluded with a few important messages. Shadyac asks, “What’s wrong with the world?” and responds, “I am.” Everyone inherently has the power of one. No controllable change occurs all at once; change is a summation of thousands of little acts done by individual people. Believing in this power of one allows us to be independent, but also aware of our underlying connectivity with other people and the world around us.
Though the documentary did seem to reiterate many idealistic views I’ve heard before, hearing the arguments from all of the scholarly voices in the film definitely made it worth watching and recommending.
Have you seen “I Am?” What did you think about it? How do you maintain awareness of your inherent connectivity to the world? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!!