Captain Fantastic: Can We Successfully Live off the Grid? (Part One)

Capt. Fantastic

This is the first in a series of 3 posts inspired by Captain Fantastic. Watching the film at the beginning of this new year has caused me to reconsider the direction of my life whose circumstances during retirement have led me to gradually drift away from the simple living ideals that Peggy and I embraced so fervently at the beginning of our life together more than forty years ago. This first posting will introduce the topic and the Captain Fantastic plot. I highly recommend the film. It is extraordinarily thoughtful.

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Over the holidays, one of my adult children persuaded me to watch Captain Fantastic. That’s the critically acclaimed film by Matt Ross about a family committed to the back-to-nature lifestyle Peggy and I aspired to at the beginning of our marriage more than 40 years ago. Captain Fantastic stars Viggo Mortensen, who in 2015 received an Academy Award nomination as best actor for his role as the title-character.

My son Patrick (now 31) recommended the film as something I’d love. He said he saw similarities between what’s depicted in the movie and the somewhat regretful experiences of his own childhood with Peggy and me. “You’ll love the film’s father,” Patrick observed wryly. “He’s a lot like you.”

After seeing Captain Fantastic, I could see Pat’s point. The main character, Ben Cash, was a mixed bag. On the one hand, he was indeed inspiring in his commitment to living off the grid. And he was such a good teacher – so open in answering his kids questions and urging them to think for themselves.

On the other hand, Cash’s shortcomings were all too familiar. Like me, he was driven by his clear (not to say rigid) concepts about the way the world works. He was convinced that capitalism is the root of the world’s problems. Socialism offers better prospects. The U.S. medical system is not to be trusted. Ditto for mainstream education. Organized religion is bogus. And holidays like Christmas are not worth celebrating. I could identify with all of that.

But the film offered much more than a nostalgic walk down memory lane. It was more than an opportunity to reflect on my own approach to life with its quirks and shortcomings. It was even more than a demonstration that another world closer to nature is possible. Instead, Captain Fantastic principally represented a reminder of the continued relevancy of the counter-cultural life and education Peggy and I tried to offer our children, even though they’ve largely rejected its intellectual underpinnings. Most importantly of all, it made me see that my present highly consumptive way of life veers sharply from the ideals I once embraced.

Let me show what I mean by first considering the film’s story. Then I’ll share Peggy’s and my attempts to replicate something like it with our own children. Finally, allow me to draw some rather urgent postmortem conclusions about Captain Fantastic’s continued relevancy and challenge to the lifestyle in which I find myself immersed.

Captain Fantastic is about Ben Cash and his family of 4 girls and 2 boys ranging in age from 8 to 18. For 10 years, the 7 of them, along with Leslie, Ben’s wife, had set up camp in the wilds of Washington State where they lived in a large tepee. Over that time, the children had learned the intricacies of foraging, hunting, and growing their own food. They are all homeschooled in philosophy, political science, half a dozen languages, and in the critical analysis of Noam Chomsky. In fact, instead of Christmas, they celebrated Chomsky’s birthday each December.

Captain Fantastic tunes into the Cash tribe’s saga at a moment of extreme crisis. The family’s mom, Leslie, has just committed suicide. She had earlier experienced a psychological breakdown and had been institutionalized. And Ben is blamed for Leslie’s death by her father and eventually by his own children. At one point, Ben’s youngest son shouts at his father, “You killed mom!”

Turns out that Ben’s wife (who doesn’t appear in the film) was no longer fully on board with Ben’s back-to-nature project. Increasingly, the couple had disagreed about its continuation. Apparently, all the resulting tension led to Leslie’s breakdown and eventual suicide. Eventually, Leslie’s wealthy father files a child-abuse lawsuit against his son-in-law in order to gain custody of his children with the intention of returning them to normal life.

None of this means that Leslie had wanted to return to daddy and his way of life. As a committed Buddhist, her final desire was to be cremated and have her ashes flushed down the toilet. This, her Catholic father could not understand, much less accept. So he arranged a traditional Catholic funeral presided over by a priest who barely knew Leslie’s name.

This proves unacceptable to Ben and his children. So they resolve to “rescue” their wife/mother, cremate her body, and flush the ashes. The rest of the film depicts their accomplishment of this feat. It is also about what leads Ben to tone down (but not much) his radicalism and allow his children to attend a mainstream school to help with their socialization.

I can see how all of that reminded Patrick of his life with Peggy and me. The next posting in this series will briefly review that life to set up a contrast and evaluation of the way I’m now living.

 

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 44 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

9 thoughts on “Captain Fantastic: Can We Successfully Live off the Grid? (Part One)”

  1. Thanks for sharing your life inventory Mike. Those of us on a spiritual path engage in a continual process of observing and questioning our lives and their direction. It’s a must in becoming more conscious, and less moved only by our conditioning. It’s a process that can be uncomfortable at times, but is eventually able to bring more light into the dark world of ourselves and our culture. Sharing stories of our awakening is one of the ways we help each other, and in telling our own story, we sometimes are surprised by truths about it that we never suspected. I look forward to your next instalment…….

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    1. Thanks, Mike. Captain Fantastic (and my son’s comments) really made me think. Life’s circumstances have pushed me towards a lifestyle that I’m not entirely comfortable with. But given the realities of family, I’m kind of stuck with what I have. I’m thinking though that political realities coupled with climate change, war, market volatility, and growing political discontent may change all of that. We’ll see. In any event, I’ll be interested in your thoughts when I finish this little series.

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      1. Mike, we are all stuck with a less than perfect lifestyle, and our convulsive efforts to break free into a more ideal spiritual way of living are usually only partially successful – but this does not mean that such efforts are without value, and in some ways indispensable. The willingness to make mistakes and celebrate partial victories gives us the flexibility and humility to sustain our imperfect efforts. (That’s a pep talk and reassurance I need to give myself time and again on this long and winding road called a spiritual quest.)

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  2. That same line of thought has been playing out in my heart, building over time. It got a “push to the top of the stack” when in conversation I mentioned to a friend my surprise that a college professor who lives near me had a cleaning crew come to his house every week. The friend is also a professor and he said he didn’t know any faculty members where he taught (with the exception of himself) who did not have their house cleaned for them. I wondered, out loud, how anyone who doesn’t live an economically simple life can fully engage students who come from economically simple circumstances?

    That tug-of-war between “do I have time to soak and cook the beans to bring to the potluck” vs. “do I get all the dishes caught up” vs. “do I cut the plywood I picked up for free and make crawlspace vent-blockers to save heat” is the daily fare of those living in simple economic circumstances. When we use our money to free us from those concerns, we cut ourselves off at the very basic level of daily existence from those we are called to serve.

    My tentative answer is: budget living at the poverty level and give the rest away.

    I grew up that way, so it’s easy for me. On a teacher’s salary in the 50’s (in most cases less than factory workers), we did everything possible for ourselves, at times in the year had
    BLT’s without the B for dinner, and putting things off was a way of life. I think living like those we are called to serve would be a shock to those who either grew up with or have become accustomed to their privileged positions in society.

    Living poor isn’t a complete solution of how do we connect with those we are called to serve. It does set the stage, however.

    thanks yet again,

    Hank

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      1. Of course. I’m glad it was helpful. A little awed, actually.

        Anything I write publicly you are always free to use as you are led.

        Going back a ways: cool, man, cool!

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