January 26, 2021

Wild Things I Cannot Control

I was reading through some old files the other day, and I came across a NYT column by David Brooks about the film, “Where the Wild Things Are.” I remember enjoying the film; his commentary on it prompted my thinking and imagination even more.

For Brooks, the movie shines light on the matter of personal character. As he ponders this, he contrasts the “philosopher’s view” of character with the “psychologist’s view.”

The first perspective asserts that individuals have certain ingrained character traits that shape who we are and how we act. I am basically a dishonest person or an honest one. I am either compassionate or unsympathetic. One of life’s great tasks is to develop a deep-rooted character of virtue. Then, I can be the “hero” who will always do the right thing and win the day.

In contrast, the psychologist’s view suggests that our actual behavior is not driven by specific permanent character traits that consistently apply across contexts. I may be honest in one situation while dishonest in another. I have any number of different tendencies that may be activated by various circumstances and moods. I am made up of what Paul Bloom calls, “a community of competing selves.” Or, as in Maurice Sendak’s vision, an island of wild things.

The film, based on Sendak’s children’s book, portrays us as people torn by warring impulses that are difficult to understand and control, even in childhood. The main character, Max, is a boy who adores his mother, yet he also rages against her. He looks up to his older sister, yet trashes her room when he cannot enjoy her in his life as he would like.

In the midst of his pre-adolescent turmoil, Max makes a fantastical journey to an island where wild things live. Each of the monsters he meets represents a member of his own “community of selves.” Brooks comments on what the lad discovers on the island:

In the movie, Max wants to control the wild things. the wild things in turn want to be controlled. They want him to build a utopia for them where they won’t feel pain. But in the movie Max fails as king. He lacks the power to control his wild things. The wild things come to recognize that he isn’t really a king, and maybe there are no such things as kings.

The philosophers teach that once we achieve virtue, we do virtuous things. However, the view represented in this film show us that…

…people have only vague intuitions about the instincts and impulses that have been implanted in them by evolution, culture and upbringing [and, I would add, our sinful nature]. there is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside.

That may be one of the clearest statements of the Christian’s spiritual struggle that I have read — “There is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside.”

I want to think, “If I can only be king and rule over them, all will be at peace and there will be no more sadness.” But I am not really a king; indeed, there really are no such thing as kings among ordinary humans. The answer is not within us.

However, there is a king outside of us who has overcome the wild beasts (Mark 1.12-13), whom God rescued from the mouths of the menacing monsters and raised up in victory over them (Psalm 22.6-24).

Each and every moment, I must look to this one, King Jesus, to tame the wild beasts within.


  1. Mike, beautiful meditation.

    I was listening to a lecture by Peter Kreeft this morning on the way to work. He quoted (summarized?) both Plato and Pascal:

    Plato — there are only two kinds of people: Foolish people who think they are wise, and wise people who think they are fools.

    Pascal — there are only two kinds of people: sinners who think they are saints, and saints who think they are sinners.

  2. No kiddn’!

  3. Wonderful piece, CM…

  4. David Cornwell says

    You’ve brought back waves of memories here this morning. This was a book that Marge read to our children again and again when they were small, because over and over again they would plead that she read it. She reached the point that she really didn’t need the book, except of course she did, with two little girls sitting next to her. It’s one of those things etched forever in our memories as a family, that will never be forgotten.

    Sitting here I’m wondering what became of that book. Whatever it went, it was worn, well worn, worn out.


  5. Thank you. A good mirror of Romans 7 and 8.

    “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

  6. I loved the book as a child– but it was simple story for the very young, consisting of affirmation that it’s fun to be wild sometimes, but you should also come home to the civilized world, and your loved ones will welcome you when you do.

    I was disappointed that the movie added a plethora of concepts such as “create a utopia where we won’t feel pain,” and “You’re a bad king.” This would have been fine had we not expected the movie to be aimed at the same audience as the book– i.,e., children between 3 and 7 years old. But the movie was really full of adult themes that to me, did not stand up well against the charm and innocence of the book, as well as being confusingly dark to the young ones.

    Still, the movie did definitely bring across the themes you mentioned, and as such, makes a good comparion with the point of your post. 🙂

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