The story has been familiar since I was a child: Max, a small boy in a wolf suit, rampages through his house until his parents call him “Wild Thing!” and send him to his room without any supper.
There, his imagination sails him away to a faraway island populated by enormous wild things, who declare Max their king. “We’ll eat you up — we love you so!” they pronounce, and Max, wearing a golden crown and carrying a scepter, leads the wild things in a rumpus all over the island until he gets lonely for someone who “loves him best” — who presumably won’t eat him up — and sails home again.
His parents have left a hot bowl of soup in his room in what is either an example of grace or of too-permissive modern parenting. Or both.
Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are has been a wildly popular children’s book since its initial publication in 1963. It fascinated me as a child, though I was never the rumpusing sort; the monsters were at once frightening and sympathetic. (Sendak himself said they were based on his Polish relatives, who were somewhat overwhelming to a small boy.) And the language is beautiful.
Spike Jonze’s 2009 film version explored the story on a much deeper level. In the movie, Max’s rampaging isn’t just the behavior of a small boy who’s feeling cooped up; it’s the latent anger, fear, and insecurity of a child who’s trying to deal with life that isn’t going the way it should. His father is gone, his mother is stressed, his sister doesn’t seem to care about him. Dysfunction is all around, not least of all in himself. Max is scared and overflowing with emotion, so he bites his mother — and horrified at his own reaction, he runs away.
When he reaches his imaginary island, Jonze’s Max meets wild things that mirror different aspects of his own heart. There’s the part of him nobody listens to, the part of him that wants to run away, the part of him that covers up rejection with bitterness; and especially there’s Karol, the angry, violent, scared-to-death-of-losing-what-he-loves-most part of him.
The irony is that Karol does what Max does: In his fear, he tries to control or lashes out. And the result, for both of them, is that everything gets worse. They drive away those they love instead of drawing them closer.
I doubt that Maurice Sendak saw deep spiritual truths in his frightening Polish relatives, but I see them in his story. In both book and movie, Max styles himself King of the Wild Things — but he isn’t really, and by the end he knows that. He’s lonely and just wants someone to love him, so he sails home to his parents and soup, narrowly avoiding being eaten. But I doubt he ever entirely escapes the wild things on the inside, any more than I can escape — or rule — the wild things in me.
Although my emotions usually ride on an even-keel, as the years pass by and I experience more of life, I’m learning that my needs — and the emotions connected with them — go deeper than I think. My own vulnerability can feel chokingly real. Sometimes the wild things rear up, threatening to swallow me in fear or anger, grief or depression; threatening to make me lose my grip on reason and drive into a wild rumpus all my own. At such times my emotions scare me. The reality of being human frightens me. And if I don’t give my emotions and my weakness over to God, they’re liable to lead me into wrong-doing or throw my faith off course.
The scariest thing about my emotions at such times is how out of my own control they are. I don’t want to feel like I do, but I do. There’s nothing I can do to change that. On good days I fancy myself ruler of the wild things, but when the wind kicks up and the beasts start howling, I soon find out that I’m not leading this parade.
Like Max, I’m not the king in my story. The depths of my soul have terrible eyes and terrible claws, and I can’t control them. But I’ve learned what Max does not: that someone else is king. Jesus Christ is king of my wild things. He never denies the power or place of emotion in my life. Instead, He offers to calm its wildness and use it to draw me closer to Himself. And because He loves me so, He promises to take care of the needs that so stir up my emotional depths.
Exhaustion: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).
Fear: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
Loneliness: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).
And again, fear: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
And yet again, fear: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
And am I still afraid? “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
The real King of the Wild Things offers me shelter in His forgiveness, His power, and His presence, shelter in times when I lay panting with emotion, in times when I’ve sinned in anger or in fear, in times when all my own resources are rampaging against me. And I’ve found the offer to be as practical and real as a bowl of hot soup when I least deserve it. When I reach out for Him, He is there.
In Spike Jonze’s movie, Karol declares Max king in the fervent hope that he will fix everything. “There has to be a way to keep all the sadness out,” he says, and later, “There should be a place where everything you wanted to have happen happens.” By the end, Max has realized that the sadness is here; the things that you wanted won’t necessarily happen. All he can do is go home and make the best of what he has, dysfunction and all. It’s an important lesson — but it’s not the whole lesson. Not, at least, in the life of a Christian.
True, for a while we’re still living here on this island, and we’ll continue to battle storms inside and out. We will still have needs, though God promises to take care of them. And God will help with our unruly emotions too, giving us power to feel without sinning; to overcome fear and weakness and anger by His Spirit. And someday His kingdom will fully come, and we’ll enter a place where the sadness can’t come in anymore — a place where everything we wanted to have happen happens.
While we bow to the King of the Wild Things, our hope is in the one who promises to overcome everything that rages against us — including, and perhaps most of all, ourselves.
Copyright 2010 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.