Love, Lust, and Traveling Light in Up In the Air



Ryan Bingham has an empty backpack. In fact, when he’s not doing his day job as a traveling employment separation specialist (he fires people for hire), he’s an aspiring motivational speaker.  He asks his audience, “What’s In Your Backpack?” Ryan believes that not only do our material possessions weigh us down, but our relationships as well. He urges others to free themselves from all life’s baggage, including human baggage. Ryan lives in a converted hotel room, owns what fits in his suitcase, and spends most of his life flying from place to place. His immediate life’s goal is to reach 10 million airline miles.

In a hotel bar he meets Alex, who also travels for her job. They trade road warrior stories and get turned on by comparing traveler’s perks. They enter an uncommitted, casual relationship in which they meet when it’s convenient. They are unashamedly in lust and find one another’s detachment incredibly sexy.

Meanwhile Ryan’s nomadic lifestyle is threatened by Natalie, a fresh-faced new hire right out of college who comes up with the brilliant idea of conducting layoffs by video conferencing. Ryan insists that Natalie doesn’t know what she’s talking about and ends up having to take her on the road to witness what he does first hand. Ryan practices his motivational skills in order to talk the people he’s firing into accepting change and seeing new opportunities. Ryan is a really great communicator, yet is not interested in using that skill to develop actual relationships. Natalie calls him on this inconsistency and he defends his philosophy with, “we all die alone, anyway.”

Eventually Ryan and Alex meet up again and she ends up going with him to his sister’s wedding where he realizes he might actually be falling for her. In a pivotal scene,  his future brother-in-law sits clutching the book The Velveteen Rabbit as Ryan talks him through his doubts about getting married, telling him that people don’t like being alone. Later Ryan walks away from a big speaking gig when he realizes that he might want more than an empty backpack. He rushes to Alex where he discovers that she isn’t what she seemed, that she has a “real life” and he’s not reality to her.

His experiences with Natalie and Alex hold up mirrors to his life and expose its emptiness. Both offer an opportunity to change the way he does life. Almost. Ryan is left with a philosophy that isn’t really holding up to examination, and a job and lifestyle that seems to be losing its luster. Yet he has the option of hanging on to both. As Ryan continues to fill his backpack with frequent flyer miles he’s “up in the air,” unsettled as to what he will believe and how his life might look if he changes.

The film in interspersed with testimonials of people  reacting to losing their jobs. In the end, losing income, losing status, losing security, even losing property isn’t the end of the world. Ryan is partially right.  Most of us don’t need all the stuff we have. Most of us could travel lighter in our lives. But as the testimonials confirm, what matters, what keeps them going, what holds them aloft  is their relationships with their loved ones. The message of The Velveteen Rabbit is that “love makes you real.”

Up in the Air ends the story with Ryan still in his character arc. Will he embrace a lifestyle that is open to love and involvement? Will he shore up his current philosophy and carry on as he always has? Is his shallow version of reality real enough?

One Response to “Love, Lust, and Traveling Light in Up In the Air

  • Berynice Says:

    I made up my mind I wasn’t going to forgive my mehtor-in-law anymore! Every time I forgave her, she would do something mean and small again. I was just sick of trying to do the right thing. Wasn’t there something about the other person being sorry for being so hurtful and mean-spirited before you actually had to forgive them? But no matter how I twisted and turned my arguments to justify myself, I felt an increasing sense of discomfort. Unresolved grudges are like the little foxes that eat the vine,” gradually causing a schism that deteriorates our relationship with God. I became aware of this separation, while I stubbornly continued to struggle with anger and bitterness. In the meanwhile, praying was a chore and my spiritual life seemed dead. One day while I was sitting at the kitchen table thinking about my mehtor-in-law and how much I really disliked her, the thought of forgiving her passed through my mind. I decided that I wouldn’t forgive her. No, not again! In fact, I was sure I had no desire or reason to forgive her. At once, I had a clear impression in my mind of the Lord saying, “That’s your sin and you need to repent. It is not that you don’t feel like forgiving her, but that you don’t even want Me to give you the ability to forgive her. Your emotions aren’t the problem, your heart is. Your willingness to forgive is necessary first.” I realized then that true forgiveness is an act of the will, not an emotional choice. I was deeply convicted and asked God for His forgiveness. Amazingly, my decision to let go of the hard feelings and resentment towards Mom immediately began to change my negative attitude towards her. A couple of weeks later, on Mother’s Day, after the church service, my youngest daughter asked if we could visit Granny on our way home. I had not seen Mom for weeks and didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I needed to make this effort. To my surprise, not only was Mom very happy to see us, but she gave me a Mother’s Day card with money in it and sent us back to the house with cash gifts for both of her granddaughters as well as for her son. From that time on my relationship with Mom continued to improve, and eventually grew into a deep and sincere love that was mutually affectionate.