Most movies I see are like the popcorn I eat while I am watching them – quickly consumed, enjoyable, easily forgotten. Some films though stay with you for days afterwards. Something in you keeps coming back to it in your mind and causing you to reflect more deeply upon the experience.

One film that recently had that effect upon both my wife and I was the current one starring Tom Hanks entitled A Hologram for the King. Based on the book of the same name by David Eggers, the story can be seen on its surface as a mildly humorous take on the culture shock of an American businessman trying to sell an Arab king on the purchase of a holographic video conferencing system for his soon to be built desert city. But there’s more beneath the surface.

Quick Summary

Here’s the quick story with no major spoilers. Tom Hanks plays the businessman who’s going through changes in his life. He’s recently divorced, trying to stay connected to his college-age daughter and trying to rekindle his flagging career by making this sale to a Saudi king. Through flashbacks we learn that he had once been more successful and influential in a position with another company where he was still haunted by his decision to ship manufacturing jobs to China. Hanks arrives in Saudi Arabia to join his sales team assistants. Things start to go awry for the group and especially Hanks based upon their prior expectations. However, the experiences that appear to be a setback on the surface truly hold the gift of discovery and newness as Hanks makes new friends and moves through a series of life changing experiences. Without giving away more, I’ll simply say that his character has a change of heart about what’s truly important in life – love and relationships. It’s a sweet story worth reflecting upon.

Easily Detectable Messages

If we dig a little deeper into the movie – and not very far – there are two very easily detectable messages going on here –

First is our awareness of our American cultural differences from how life is in the Arab world. As my wife stated the next day after our viewing, “I felt like I just got back from Saudi Arabia.” The moviemakers did a great job of capturing the sense of disorientation that an American must have when visiting there – the language differences, the Muslim religious restrictions and how they affect what we see as our normal day affairs, an undercurrent of tension and fear that permeate outer life interactions.

It’s easy for Americans who never travel abroad to see life totally through an American cultural lens. I truly believe that all Americans should travel and experience other cultures so that they might understand that there are more ways of interpreting and acting in the world than what they experience here in the states. This movie gives a taste of that experience.

Second is the obvious message about the impact of outsourcing jobs from America to other countries. Corporations and the people who work for them often experience unintended negative consequences based upon their short-term decisions to cut cost and increase profits.  Such decisions should always consider the impact on the “bigger picture”.

Yet I believe there is even deeper message here for us to consider woven into the title of the film. What is a hologram? Most of us think of it is either those little shiny pictures that appear to be 3-D like the stickers on many of our credit cards or the projection of a 3-D image such as when R2-D2 showed Luke the message from Princess Leia in the original Star Wars movie. In fact, when Hanks and his team do get around to providing a demonstration to the King of their conferencing system, it’s hard not to think about Leia!

From a scientific perspective, a hologram is a photographic recording of a light field that can be played back – usually using a laser – to display a 3-D image. However there are a couple of characteristics of a hologram which I wish to highlight –

First, it’s been said that every part of a hologram contains the information for the entire hologram. In other words, if you were to take a slice from a hologram, you would be able to still reproduce the entire 3-D image as all of the information for creating it would still be in the slice. Secondly, consider that no matter how realistic the holographic image is, it is still just a projection of reality.

Digging Deeper

So what is the deeper message here for us?

The mystical poet William Blake once wrote the famous lines:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

From our normal state of consciousness this may make no sense. How can the world be in a grain of sand? How can infinity be in the palm of my hand? I am small compared to the large world. I am separate and apart from all that I seem to experience. Yet Blake seems to point towards a different experience where there is no separation, no large or small – an experience where we exist outside of time and space and all that exists everywhere can exist at any point anywhere.

One of my spiritual teachers recently stated (and I paraphrase) that the universe is like a hologram inside a hologram inside a hologram. In other words, the world of what we consider the infinitely small contains everything that is in the world of what we consider the infinitely large. Everything that exists everywhere can be found at any one “point” within itself.

Yet still, the hologram is a “projection” – much like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. We look out at the world and believe it to be “real” forgetting the role that we individually and collectively play in creating that world. We tend to believe the world is happening “to us”, not remembering our co-creative part in the process. We believe we are finite beings subject to the whims of the world.

To quote Blake again: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

Hanks’ character sees a limited life based on what he thought was valuable. He valued business success and material wealth. He saw life through an American cultural lens which limited his perspective. His prospective guided the projection of the world he experienced. He felt depression because he was not experiencing in his outer life what he convinced himself was vital to his sense of success. Haven’t we all been there?

A Message for You and I?

To a degree, his character had to go through a “breakdown” in order to experience a “breakthrough”. His perception changed. He had to release his old sense of what he convinced himself was important for life – our group agreement to chase material wealth and success. In that release, he opened himself to learning and growth and a recognition that there are more important things in life. The world “out there” is really inside the world “right here”.  What we seek in the greater world is really contained within ourselves the seeker.  We simply need to shift our perspective and our intentions.

What Hanks character appeared to learn and what we can all benefit from is to remember this – we’re here to experience the fullness and joy of life and that our true joy does not come from the continuous chase for wealth and material success but rather from those beautiful small moments of enjoying the delicious variety of life on earth and sharing those moments in relationship with someone we love.  We each have the power to create our own world  — to be the kings of our own lives projecting our own hologram — one not driven by false desires for power, fame and wealth but rather by our true nature of love and interconnectedness.

Mark Gilbert


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