Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Oxymoronic Nature of Parenting

The movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is a sophisticated and courageous effort to show the devastation experienced by a young boy, Oskar, who suddenly loses his father in the terrorist attack, on the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001.

The victim, Thomas Schell, played by Tom Hanks, happens to be the son of Holocaust survivors, and the portrayal of his relationship with his only son is subtly interwoven with undertones of how that genocide shaped their lives. Thomas is an engaged and thoughtful father who spends large amounts of time with his son helping to permanently shape the way this young man engages his world.

Through an ongoing “game” of sharing information, Thomas persistently encourages Oskar to confront areas of knowledge that are foreign to him ─ ultimately gaining access to those areas. Thomas challenges his son to search intellectually and lovingly. He also seems to spend a lot of time inspiring and teaching Oskar to dream, and to fantasize, with an ongoing tale of a “6th borough” that once was part of New York City.

The acquired ability to fantasize allows Oskar to reach beyond his immediate circumstances and pursue something overwhelmingly unattainable. Although, the very young man seemed to know that, in the end, all good and fantastical things cease or die.

Thomas and Oskar also engaged in an ongoing verbal dual, in which one would upstage the other with the oxymoronic elements of life and the terminology that described them. An oxymoron is a figure of speech with contradictory terms crafted to reveal a paradox. Terms like: “a fine mess,” “a little pregnant,” “benign neglect” and “planned spontaneity” are examples of commonly used oxymorons.

Thomas’ oxymoron games taught Oskar about some of the most profound and difficult to understand elements of life.

Parenting is flush with efforts that are paradoxical and often demands behavior that can only be described in oxymoronic terms.

What follows is an excerpt from a piece I wrote some years ago describing my own challenges regarding the paradoxes of fatherhood:

To be a source of respect and awe,
and be emotionally touchable.

To be a fortress of strength,
and a palace of sharing.

To be a reservoir of wisdom,
and a river of thirst for knowledge.

To be as brave as a tiger,
and as brave as a kitten.

To be as resourceful as a super hero,
and as defenseless as a newborn child.

To smile with authority, as only a courageous human being can,
and to laugh fully with those who love you…

(Adapted from “Fatherhood” in the book titled From Me to My Children)

To live life in a paradoxical position is generally complex, often open ended, and always challenging.

For a parent there is no other way.

A parent may never choose one or the other. Strength may never trump accessibility, power may never hide vulnerability, and respect may never allow a child to imagine that one is not hungry for new knowledge and growth.

Political leaders, and aspiring corporate leaders, struggle with this. They must show a connectedness and the ability to empathize and be touched by those they lead, yet at the same time project a persona of power and self-assuredness.

Our forefathers and ancient leaders are deliberately shown in both roles, to enable us to model and mimic them. Abraham was a warrior and a compassionate father, uncle, and builder of humanity. Jacob was a dreamer and a scholar, yet immersed himself in the most challenging practical life scripts. Moshe (Moses) was a man of compassion, who saw himself as the father of a nation, yet also displayed his fears and even his anger.

A parent must always be aware that his young adult son is not his buddy ─ yet they must laugh and share as friends. One’s student is an individual she treasures – yet she must zealously insure that deep felt respect is never compromised. One’s employees are the team that is essential to his success, so there must be openness and a collective building process ─` yet they and he must understand that the pyramid is not flat, and success demands clearly delineated leadership.

So, dear friends, in order to be a successful parent you must struggle with the paradox of parenthood every day. In order to effectively guide your children, they have to become comfortable with the oxymoronic nature of life.

In the movie, Thomas wasn’t attempting to teach his son how to separate himself from the concept of an oxymoron ─ he was teaching him to embrace it. The depiction of the different sides of the ancient giants who built us provides the same lesson.

So, as you wear “business casual” clothing and engage “friendly competitors” in an attempt to “grow your business, as you’re happy with your lot,” keep in mind that being an effective parent makes all the struggles worthwhile.

Warmest regards,



One Response to “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

  1. Neil Sheff Says:

    Ricky-as always beautifully thought and written. While my wife and I really enjoyed the film, you have now given it a much more meaningful and deep dimension we hadn’t thought of. We wondered about the “Jewishness” of the father and grandparents but were thrown off by what appeared to be a Non-Jewish funeral for the father as the film opens. It’s too bad that aspect of the family past wasn’t integrated into the film; it would have made it all the more sadly ironic to realize the grandparents had survived terrible persecution and hatred to see their son fall victim to the tragedy of 9/11.

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