The other night I watched the movie Lion. Perhaps you have seen it. The movie tells the true story of Saroo Brierley and his family. It has deservedly received a number of Oscar nominations. It’s an extraordinary movie, and it left a real impression on me.
As a young child Saroo lived with his family in a poor part of India. The family had to scrabble together whatever they could just to eat. At the age of five Saroo accompanied his older brother at night on one of his foraging missions. Saroo ended up falling asleep in an empty train car, and as he was sleeping the train left the station. He travelled over 1,000 miles on that train and, when it stopped, he had no idea where he was or how he could get back home.
In Calcutta (where the train trip ended) people didn’t even speak his language. He survived on the streets—as a five year-old—for several weeks, before being picked up by an orphanage. He was then adopted by extraordinary, loving Anglo-Saxon parents in Australia, where he grew up. He grew up well-adjusted and happy into his early 20s. But then he simply had to find out where he had come from. That led to a serious crisis in his life and in his relationship with his adoptive parents.
Every night Saroo scoured Google Earth, looking for some recognizable feature in the landscape that would correspond with the fragments of his five year-old memory of that train trip, and of his home village. Consumed with the need to know, he did that virtually each night for three years, with no success. Meanwhile, his life was unraveling.
And then, suddenly, he recognized on Google Earth a water tower at the train station from which he had departed. He was then able to trace back his steps on Google Earth to the village, even to the shack that had been his home.
This was an extraordinary moment. Now he knew where he had come from. It didn’t take long for him to board a plane, go back to his origins, and reunite with his biological mom, who had never given up hope that he was still alive.
What did that journey do for Saroo? It gave him his life back. And his families back. It cemented and repaired his relationship with his adoptive parents. And it gave him the mom of his origins back. His adoptive parents supported him throughout Saroo’s quest. The two moms have now met and embraced.
All of which has me reflecting: what is this irresistible, extraordinary power of origins? Why is it so important to our lives? As human beings we desperately need to know where we have come from. If we do know, and if those origins remain accessible to us, we don’t think about it much. If we have moved far away from our original home, we think about it a lot more, and we hold on to any wisps of memory, fleeting as they are, desperately wondering how reliable the memories might be, and finding any connection to our beginnings precious.
If we have been foster children, or adopted as a child, so much is unknown. But the need to know can be overwhelming. Where did I come from? Who were my parents? Why did I end up having to leave them? Was it my fault? Who are they? Who am I, actually?
Piecing together that story can be profoundly challenging. But doing so and finding some peace with it is fundamental to our well-being, as the story of Saroo illustrates exquisitely. It is one of the most profound and basic tasks of life.
All of which for me brings to mind Shalem’s Linking Lives/Building Attachment program, which does this work especially with children and youth suffering from early trauma or neglect, and their foster, adoptive or biological parents. The work of those parents in helping their children piece together a coherent story about their origins is life-giving.
In his native language (which he no longer knows), “Saroo” means “lion.” He, like all children with traumatic beginnings, is indeed a “lion.” I heartily recommend the movie to you. And see what questions about your own origins it might spark.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network