It is the tale of a 78-year-old man who ties together thousands of balloons to airlift his old house out of his neighborhood and toward his lifelong dream of visiting South America. Mr. Fredricksen is joined by an 8-year-old stowaway, Russell, who also has a mission: to secure a Scout badge for assisting an elderly person.
The filmmakers artfully blend the improbable with the human to make a funny and wild improvisation on the subject of loss and healing.
Mr. Fredricksen had a good past, largely because of his loving, although imperfect, marriage to his wife, Ellie. However, when she died, he was left alone with his memories. At first he sails through the sky in the familiar and cozy surroundings of the house in which he lived with Ellie for many years. But when enough balloons burst so that the house is floating just above ground level, he is forced to tug it behind him. The image of the old man slowly pulling a house of memories behind him becomes the central visual metaphor of the film.
How did Mr. Fredricksen’s warm memories turn into such a heavy burden? How do we end up being weighed down by the past? Is there something we can do now to prevent a similar fate for ourselves?
Recently a woman nearing retirement age shared with me her metaphor for growing older. She said that life is a puzzle. Each passing year removes some of the pieces. People we know and love move away or die. Important life events like graduation, the first day at a new job, and the birth of our children retreat further into the haze of the past. Buddhists refer to this as the principle of impermanency. The ancient Greeks compared life to a constantly flowing river.
When we try to desperately cling to the pleasure and pain of the past, the memories turn from balloons into lead. No matter how much memorabilia we collect, we can’t seem to haul the past into the present. No matter how much we nurse resentment for past hurts, we can’t change sorrow to joy.
The past continues to weigh us down as long as we demand that it turn out differently than it did. Then we’re stuck in regret. When we expect that the joy of the past will continue forever, we’re trapped by nostalgia.
To move forward on our journey, we need to let go of the triple lead balloons of excessive regret, nostalgia and resentment. How can we do that? Without divulging the specifics of the plot, Mr. Fredricksen had to learn to reinvest in the present. The struggle and exhilaration of his present adventure freed him. His marriage was the most meaningful experience of his life. But now it was gone. He had to decide whether to let himself rot in the once comfortable, now strangely empty, surroundings of his house or pour himself into the what-is of the now.
Older people are not the only ones who can miss out on the present by holding on to the past. Some parents can only see the loss of personal freedom that comes with raising children. There is absolutely no doubt that raising children is the most demanding and exhausting task you will undertake. It is possible to run from that challenge by trying to retreat into the joys of being single and free at the expense of the challenges of parenthood.
But by embracing the challenge of what life gives us and finding the joys of nurturing the minds and hearts of children, we can escape the burden of excessive regret that weighed down Mr. Fredricksen. The old man and the young boy find salvation by losing themselves in helping each other. You may call that a corny ending. I call it profound, especially when the message is sent with as much humor, creativity and exuberance that is found in abundance in “Up.”
(Pankratz is a marriage and family therapist at Catholic Charities Milwaukee regional office.)